Everything I Learned Along the Way: Synthesizing Your Life from Your Experiences with Dr. Rachel Herz

Rachel Herz, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and world leading expert on the psychological science of smell. She has been conducting research on the senses, emotion, perception, motivated behavior and cognition since 1990.  Dr. Herz is a TEDx speaker, has published over 95 original research papers, received numerous awards and grants, co-authored scholarly handbooks, and is an adjunct professor in the Medical School of Brown University and part-time faculty in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College.

She is also a professional consultant to various industries regarding scent, taste, food and flavor, and is frequently called upon as an expert witness in legal cases involving olfaction.  Dr. Herz is the author of several academic and popular science books including the leading college textbook on Sensation & Perception (Oxford University Press) now in its 6th edition, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell (2007; Harper Collins), which was selected as a finalist for the “2009 AAAS Prize for Excellence in Science Books,” and That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion (2012; W.W. Norton & Co), which analyzes the emotion of disgust from culture to neuroscience, and was listed as a New York Times Book Review “Editor’s Choice”.  Her latest book Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food (2018; W.W. Norton & Co) explores how our senses, brain and psychology govern our perception of food, and the experiences and consequences of eating. Why You Eat What You Eat was a finalist for the “2018 Readable Feast Awards” and listed among the “Best Food Books of 2018” by The Smithsonian and The New Yorker.



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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Learning what you don’t want to do with your life
  • Getting your life back
  • Synthesizing experiences into a career
  • A Renaissance for Smell
  • How a trip to the dermatologist got Dr. Herz through her TEDx Talk
  • Learning to write like a “real” person, not a scientist

In this episode…

Six dozen rats and months of literally wandering in the woods taught Dr. Rachel Herz what she didn’t want out of life.

In this episode of Unconventional Life, Dr. Rachel Herz shares her story of discovery with Dr. Russell Strickland. She discusses how her early academic experiences taught her what she didn’t like and how she was able to find nuggets from each of those experiences to craft her eventual career. Dr. Herz goes on to her describe “the hardest thing” she’s ever done (and, no, it wasn’t her dissertation) and what it was like to turn science into a story for her first book.

Learn what you don’t like early, so that you can mine the gold from your experiences and build a life you will treasure!

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to www.dissertationdone.com/done and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to www.dissertationdone.com/book and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit www.dissertationdone.com to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.



Intro  00:03

Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there, who earned their doctoral degrees, and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique and unconventional ways. Here’s your host astrophysicist turned teacher, author, dissertation coach, and more, Dr. Russell Strickland.


Intro  00:03

Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percenters out there, who ends their doctoral degrees, and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique and unconventional ways. Here’s your host astrophysicist turned teacher, author, dissertation coach, and more, Dr. Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland  00:28

Hello, and welcome. I’m your host, Dr. Russell Strickland, the founder and CEO of Dissertation Done, and welcome to An Unconventional Life. Today, we have with us Dr. Rachel Herz. She has a PhD in psychology. But, now works as a neuroscientist as she’s the world’s leading expert on the psychological sense of smell. She has been conducting research on the senses emotion, perception, and motivated behavior and cognition since 1990. She’s a TEDx speaker. She’s published over 95 original research papers, she has three popular science books. And as she just told me recently, she has another one that’s percolating/in the works. It’s a it’s gone beyond the thinking stages. And we’ll hope, hopefully, we’ll be able to hear more about that and see that soon. Again, her name is Dr. Rachel Herz. Dr. Herz, welcome to the show today.


Dr. Rachel Herz  01:21

Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.


Dr. Russell Strickland  01:23

Oh, that’s awesome. I’d like to let everyone know that today’s episode is being brought to you by Dissertation Done. At Dissertation Done, we help adult doctoral students through the dissertation process, so if you are feeling a little bit slowed, stalled, or just plain stuck on the process, reach out to us at DissertationDone.com/done and we’ll see if we can schedule a conversation and maybe help you get that dissertation on the fast track to graduation. Now, if you have gone past that point, and your first name is already Doctor, but you’d like to get your work out there, you have a message you’d like to share people that you’d like to help, the best way to get the word out there is by being a published author, and your first name is Doctor and you literally wrote the book on your area of expertise, you obviously become the default and go to standard for the person who someone would be looking forward to help them if they need help in your area. We help folks to get their first books published. And we can have a conversation about that. If you go find us at DissertationDone.com/book. So that’s the commercial. Again, Dr. Herz, welcome and thanks for joining me today.


Dr. Rachel Herz  02:30

Thank you.


Dr. Russell Strickland  02:31

So as I mentioned to you before, I often start off by asking folks to tell me a little bit about what motivated you to take this crazy leap into the doctoral journey. You know, there’s about 2% of the of the population ever tries, I guess about 1% successful. And here, here we are the crazy ones. What What was your motivation for doing that?


Dr. Rachel Herz  02:52

Well, my motivation was almost not my choice. Both my parents are professors. I’m the firstborn. So it’s like you’re going into the family business that was kind of a given from day one.


Dr. Russell Strickland  03:05

What do you want to be a professor of? We’ll give you full choice, right?


Dr. Rachel Herz  03:09

Exactly. Well, actually, not even my dad was I started off in biology. When I switched to psychology, he told me it was the worst mistake of my life.


Dr. Russell Strickland  03:17

Oh my gosh, that was that was a bridge too far already.


Dr. Rachel Herz  03:19

Yeah, exactly. So anyway.


Dr. Russell Strickland  03:22

Antique French literature. You didn’t you mentioned that you were interested in that at all?


Dr. Rachel Herz  03:26

Well, interestingly, my mother is an English professor of English literature, but much more easygoing, with my, you know, whatever I was interested in. But so I felt like, you know, I, in a way, I didn’t have much choice in the sense. I mean, I thought this was never really a question to what I was going to do after being an undergraduate and then going on to graduate school, although I did take a year off. And this was before the gap year was


Dr. Russell Strickland  03:48



Dr. Rachel Herz  03:49

to do that was already kind of looked at as askance by my father in particular. But I did you know, what sort of people tend to do more frequently these days is I actually worked in a lab for half of that year. And then I traveled on a total shoestring like, literally, you know, that sort of stick with a bundle over my back, spending as little money as possible, traveled through the Middle East and Europe and so forth for six months. And during that year, what I had done was I had applied to various graduate schools, because I sort of, I mean, because this was going into the family business, I still sort of didn’t really know what I was doing with myself. And at the time, and this was also I’m Canadian, so this was in Canada. And there’s not that many schools to choose from, which is sort of good because it limits how many applications you send out, right, about 10. I think that basically accounts for all the PhD programs in in Canada, at least at the time, half of them into clinical psychology programs, because I didn’t know maybe I want to be a therapist. And then the other happened to experimental psychology progress. And I should say something else that happened during that that year where I was working in the lab, and this was also something that was really formative in terms of where and what I thought I wanted to do in terms of research. Is that as I just mentioned that I had started off in biology and switched gradually over the course of my undergraduate into psychology. And even though what I was doing what would today be called neuroscience at the time was called bio psychology. So I was working with animals specifically working with rats. And I had done various experiments with them. And I was working this summer with the same Professor I’d done my honors thesis with and I actually was really, really lucky. He was very, very supportive of the whole academic track. And I have two publications from my undergraduate time just as a function of his mentorship there. But something which was a little bit…


Dr. Russell Strickland  05:37

What a way to start out, isn’t it? I actually had a, I went to graduate school, the graduate school I chose because my advisor, my undergraduate mentor, so to speak, went to that graduate school and you spoke highly of is also an excellent program. But But yeah, I had the opportunity to publish. I technically, I guess I was in graduate school by the time it came out. But But we published we wrote, We submitted and everything was still an undergrad, that was just such a cool experience to be able to do research and actually have it be professionally accepted. And he was a great mentor to me. I didn’t like the way people wrote science at the time, because it was all very stodgy and, you know, academic. And I said, they all seem like they’re geniuses, right? Because they just they write about these things as if it was easy. It is not easy. I’m having a lot of hard, hard time with this stuff. And it’s like, we all do, don’t worry about it. And I said, Well, I’m gonna write about that. And so I started off writing about how, you know, all the little things I tried and all the things you know, why didn’t work and how we got and, and he eventually started gently saying, well, don’t you think it’s confusing to say we did all of this, and then it didn’t work? Because somebody might just pick it up and start reading that and then try to replicate it. It’s like, okay, yeah. And little by little, he guided me to the plain, boring cardboard, academic wonk speak, because that’s there for a reason. But he kind of guided me to and I understand why they do it that way. Now. So now somebody asked me, Why don’t you write my dissertation that way? I’m like, this is this is why.


Dr. Rachel Herz  07:06

Yeah, so what something happened during and this was an experience that doesn’t have to do with writing. But while I was working as a, as a lab technician, we were doing an experiment with animals on 72, rats that I had personally hand trained, and they were super tame, and I can handle them, it was completely great. And, in fact, one weekend, if, you know, we didn’t have to come and feed them on the weekend, because as long as they get water, they’re okay. But if their water bottle falls out, they actually, you know, it becomes sort of a really bad situation for them. And so I had to like hand feed with a little dropper with sweetened condensed milk, there’s one little rat, you know, back to help and so forth. Anyway, after this long experiment, where then the animals are sacrificed is the technical term, it turns out that we had no results like the the effect that we were trying to replicate, which my supervisor had read in some other paper was supposed to be x and too x completely didn’t happen. And then he realized that it was because the way we were giving the injections of this one particular drug was through a different mechanism than the people in the paper had. And actually, the way we did, it would take 20 minutes for the drug to have the effect. But we did the behavioral tests right away. And therefore we saw nothing. And I thought 72 animals died, because somebody read a paper incorrectly. And this is just wrong. So this I had a real crisis of conscience, for doing this kind of experimentation. Like it made sense to me if this is for greater good, you know, there’s a bigger reason for this, I can justify, you know, that these animals are dying for something. But this was animals dying for nothing. And as a result of that, when I was thinking about what kind of experimental work I wanted to do for my PhD, I didn’t want to do anything invasive like that. I did not want to be working with animals where they were going to die and the service of what I was doing, so that off,


Dr. Russell Strickland  08:58

I can certainly understand all that. But what was this something that was clearly just a mistake? Or was it a learning opportunity? I mean, it was something where you said, you know, what, if we do it this way, it causes this type of reaction. If we do it this other way, we get to see the effect. Maybe that’s not a full blown one paper, but at least, you know, what used to be called letters to,


Dr. Rachel Herz  09:19

But it was absolutely nothing. I mean, it wasn’t like, I mean, maybe if we would have known that if we did it this way, we would have seen such and such, but we didn’t test to find anything. So just the way that the experiment was set up, know the dependent variable, showing that whatever was supposed to happen, it was basically a complete zilch, so we didn’t have a learning…


Dr. Russell Strickland  09:38

To definitively say we kind of did it wrong, and people will now know we knew it this way, not this way. Because that’s learning. That’s something that’s worth reporting.


Dr. Rachel Herz  09:46

Right. I mean, I guess the one thing is it underscored that this speed of act action, you know, in terms of a brain effect from the pharmacology is is really critical. You can’t just assume that it’s going to be incorporated into this In a particular time, so maybe there was that aspect of learning that was involved. But I would say that was a low level.


Dr. Russell Strickland  10:09

I just like to try to take the positive out of wherever I find it. And yeah, that’s the thing is with science, I’m telling our students this all the time. There’s always something that we learn. And usually, it’s something worthwhile. Even if you didn’t find an effect. If you legitimately tested it, like you said, You guys made a mistake, we’ll call it a mistake. But whatever, however you want to characterize it, you guys did something. Not exactly the way that you intended to do it. Even then, it seems like there’s something there. And if you test something, you say, there’s no effect. That’s useful. It’s not sexy. It’s not the sort of thing you get a professorship over. But it is useful to report.


Dr. Rachel Herz  10:46

Right? No, I’m completely for finding no effects. You know, for instance, in replicating phenomenon, actually, it is really isn’t really there, or something along those lines. And so this did show that changing the method, I mean, I’m also a really strong believer, and I think it was Einstein, who said he only ever read methods and results because methods dictate results. And so this really shows that because we change one thing about the method, everything else was the same, and the results were totally different. So I do think that that is valuable learning at kind of a pedagogical level, but not so much from the point of view of myself emotionally at the time, I felt really disturbed by this, that I couldn’t really justify this work, because it did, you know, it was something that was very intimate to me, in a way working with these animals, like I said, like handing handling them and restoring them back to life after they had been, you know, been starving for two days, and so on. So, I felt that there was a need for me to be able to justify the means to the end. And when I saw this mistake, I felt like well, it’s not that I wouldn’t make a mistake like this. In the future, I just decided that I didn’t want to work with animals in this way. And kind of naively at the time, I thought I wanted to work with animals and like the kind of more cuddly way of just observing them. And so what ended up ended up happening while I was away, calling my parents maybe about once a month. So this is way before cell phone. So I find a payphone somewhere. And I say what’s happening, you know, open up the letters Tell me tell me what the results are. Turned out. I didn’t get accepted into any of the clinical PhD programs. Well, but I did get accepted into it. So at the time, it was harder to get into clinical program. That’s probably maybe still the case today. But I got accepted


Dr. Russell Strickland  12:26

So yeah, they usually have a lot of applicants to this program. Yeah.


Dr. Rachel Herz  12:29

So I got accepted into several of the experimental programs, and one of them was also offering me money. So that was the answer. Very, you know, not very profound thinking at this particular juncture. And this was the University of Toronto, which is a really, really good school. So it was probably actually from the point of view of the hierarchy of universities in Canada, the best one anyway. So that was all very well and fine. But the


Dr. Russell Strickland  12:54

first part have to offer you money. So obviously, they’re smart people, right.


Dr. Rachel Herz  12:58

They knew what the lures to me. But interestingly, and the person who I was going to be working with did research on birds, and specifically spatial memory, and it was black capped chickadees, in particular. And so what I was going to be doing, and just also just kind of clarify in the in Canada, you have a separate master’s thesis, and then you do a PhD. So this would be initially going into it anyway, my master’s work was on when I developed this idea of looking at spatial memory, and black capped chickadees. And I literally went into the forest with my professor in the early winter with one of those giant bird net things and like trapped her like this, and we had to band them on their on their ankles, so that we would be able to release them afterwards. And then if we ever caught one again, we would know it had already been used, and therefore we would release it again. Anyway, so this was, this was what I did. And you know, my friends used to tease me because I was always kind of into fashion and into other things as well. And they would say we cannot see you in your Betsey Johnson dress and high heels running around in the woods in the wintertime in Ontario. But they were actually kind of right because, and not so much from the fashion perspective. But I realized while I was doing this work that what I really liked about the animal research I was doing wasn’t that I you know, cuddling little rats, but rather that this was a model for human behavior. And specifically what we were looking at was dopamine and drug addiction, and also as being a model potentially for schizophrenia. And so that was what I was interested in not so much working with animals. And so during the dark days of my master’s research, where I was just like, oh my god, this is like, not floating my boat at all. I mean, I was really unhappy and thinking, What am I going to do with myself? This is not this is not right. And also really feeling and this is actually something that I can say probably many of your viewers see this too is I felt like you know, all I all I’m working for and this was throughout graduate school is to get that PhD and then I can be a human being and I used to think Because I would also living in Toronto and living downtown, and I would walk across the street all the time, without looking cars coming here, they’re everywhere. And I think everyone would say you’re gonna get run over, you’re gonna get run over and I but as long as I have my PhD first, and the obituary says Dr. Rachel Herz, it’s okay. So literally, that I was so focused on that goal, that was just something I would say, is a bad way of thinking about it. And maybe also, since most of your viewers are adults, they have a better, better understanding of life balance, and so on. But


Dr. Russell Strickland  15:32

For most of them the goal; it is a strong goal. But But and in their case, it’s true. It’s just it’s getting that degree. So the research work is not necessarily critical for a lot of the folks in our audience, because they have to do it. It’s a degree requirement, but then they’re going to use their degree, usually outside of research. So yeah, we’re just we’re trying to get them to laser focus on what does it take to get to that endpoint. But the thing that you mentioned earlier, remind me of one of my students, when I asked them a few weeks after they defended, like, what’s the best part of graduating that now? What is it, and he said, Dr. Strickland, I got my life back. And I thought that was so profound, because in a way, in a way you are very, very much a different person while you’re a student, and you’re focused and laser, you know, lasered in on this goal. But he felt like he can do the things that were him. This was part of his identity, but it was a part that was overtaking the rest of him while he’s in school. So I thought that was rather profound. Honestly, I’ve looked at it differently since he said that.


Dr. Rachel Herz  16:37

Yeah, so realizing that I had made this mistake in terms of field and topic and what I was really interested in, I knew that after I finished the Masters that I needed to go on and do something else. But all I really knew at the time was I was interested in humans. And I was interested in this sort of behavior sort of brain psychology interface. And actually, what I thought I wanted to do was sleep research, because one of the things during my undergraduate time, which I was really lucky to have is probably one of the only places in Canada that actually had real sleep researchers real sleep lab, and so on. And I had done work with some of those people and really loved it. And I thought, well, this would be great if I could now do sleep research, because it was seemed like a perfect intersection between biology and psychology and a lot of levels. So I actually started my masters or my PhD work doing sleep research. But because nobody in the department had any sleep research background, I was actually working with a doctor who was also on the faculty in the medical school at the University of Toronto. So I was working on one of the hospitals on my research side of things, and then working with a different professor, sort of on the theoretical, more basic literature, types of things within the department. And then, because the University of Toronto did not have a clinical program at that time, that I was told, after a year of doing this, sorry, we think what you’re doing is too clinical, you have to change because you’re working out at a hospital, you have to change your areas or leave. I mean, or if you want to do this, you have to do it somewhere else, because you can’t do it here. So then I was like, Okay, now what do I do, but at this point, I’d also realized, you know, emotion and memory and sort of gam these kinds of mechanisms were really of interest to me. And I should say, sort of backtracking back to my undergraduate days working in the lab and without supervisor, while I was there that year, you know, taking that year off and working in the lab and so on. I did the GRE exams. And one of the questions on this specific sub section for psychology was, what is the sense that’s most closely linked to memory? And the answer was smell. And I asked my supervisor, why is that? And he said, Oh, well, you know, it just is I think it has something to do with neuroanatomy, but whatever. Anyhow, that also really stuck in my craw. That’s not really a satisfying answer. Yeah.


Dr. Russell Strickland  18:56

It’s not really a satisfying answer. From a behavioral standpoint, it’s certainly not a satisfying answer from a scientific standpoint. But from a behavioral standpoint. You know, one of the things we’re trying to work with doctoral students all the time is the words, I don’t know. Okay, it’s perfectly fine. is a source of strength to say, I don’t know, they taught me in graduate school. You can’t say that all the time. You have to know something. But nobody can know everything. So just know what you know, know what you don’t know. And then don’t worry about it. What’s more interesting is if you can say we don’t know, like, you know, enough to know, nobody knows this. Then you’re like, Okay, let me go find out. But, but for him to at least say, I don’t know, because because what he said sounded more like and I’m trying to remember who did this. But there was a Nobel laureate who was sent a research paper at some point. And the person was just very interested in hearing his feedback. They wanted to know, what do you think of this paper? And his answer was, this isn’t even wrong. That’s like, that’s like such a cut. Yeah. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s not even at that level. And that’s almost what that answer sounded like to me. Like, there’s no reason to ask this question. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just, it just is.

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.