Meet the Postdocs – Robert Pellegrino

Robert Pellegrino, PhD, received his degree in food science from the University of Tennessee. He is now a postdoctoral fellow working with the labs of Pamela Dalton, PhD, and Joel Mainland, PhD. His work combines psychophysics and behavioral analyses to help better understand our relationship to odors.

Robert Pellegrino, PhD.

Robert Pellegrino, PhD

Q. How long have you been at Monell?

I have been at Monell for about two years now, but really I have known the Center for a while. During my master’s research on how disgust influences hand washing habits, I became very closely acquainted with Pamela Dalton’s research, which also included a whole bunch of work surrounding disgust. And this was when I started getting interested in the sense of smell.

Q. So you haven’t always been interested in chemosensory research?

Yeah, not really! My undergraduate degree was in computer science. I really enjoyed working with databases and creating user interfaces, and I thought I was going to go into information technology (IT) or information systems. And I did eventually end up in IT, but then moved into business analysis, where I got to do a lot of statistics.

At that time, my focus started shifting towards another interest of mine, food. I wanted to maybe pursue a culinary degree, but I didn’t. Instead I learned about a movement of science-based cooking, and I started working towards my food science degree.

Q. Woah, quite the journey!

Right? But it eventually all came together, and I joined Monell after a couple more stops: the Technical University of Dresden, where I received my doctorate in otorhinolaryngology; and the University of Tennessee, where I got my PhD in food science.

Q. And what are you working on at Monell?

At the moment, my interests are to understand and predict approach and avoidance behaviors during odorous encounters. I consider myself a psychophysicist, someone who studies and investigates physical stimuli in order to understand the human perception of and reaction to these stimuli.

Q. A food scientist, a psychophysicist, how else would you describe yourself?

A storyteller! If there’s one thing I strive for, it is a good story. I like to hear stories, and I like to share them. Food, by the way, is one of the best ways to find a good story. And this may or may not be the reason I started Monell’s weekly food gatherings, Fika!

Q. So have you been finding ways to combine your science and your storytelling?

I am currently working with a group of coauthors on a new cookbook! It combines science, stories, and recipes that can be a guide to people who have anosmia (total smell loss) or hyposmia (partial smell loss). Losing your ability to enjoy food is really one of the most depressing results of losing your sense of smell. The book will hopefully provide creative ways to interact with food even with a sensory experience that lacks smell.