Catherine Dulac

“The sense of smell was very poorly understood,” says professor of molecular and cellular biology Catherine Dulac, until a seminal 1991 paper on odorant receptor genes by Linda Buck and Richard Axel (who later shared a Nobel Prize) opened up a huge field for research. In 1992, Dulac earned her doctorate in developmental biology, and the next year left her native France to work with Axel at Columbia University. “Humans and animals can detect hundreds of thousands of ambient chemicals,” Dulac says. “Smell is closely connected with the emotional brain, with pleasure and aversion. And nothing is more evocative of memories than smell—the cookies that grandmother made, or the perfume of someone you just met.” Dulac comes from an academic family in Montpellier (both parents are literature scholars) and graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. She studies pheromones, chemicals that animals sense (but don’t necessarily smell) that are vehicles for social communication—defining, for example, potential mates and rivals. So far, evidence doesn’t back “love potion” perfumes containing alleged pheromones, she says. But Senomyx, a company that applies research to improving flavors of foods and medicines, uses scientists like Dulac as advisers. She came to Harvard in 1996, when her department had two tenured women; today there are three. Dulac herself won tenure in only four years. She has run four Boston Marathons, and enjoys travel to places as remote as Patagonia and Easter Island. But conceptual voyages—like extrapolating from mice to humans—are trickier. “Humans are very complex,” she explains. “And, especially concerning sex, they lie.”  

You might also like

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Harvard’s New Football Coach: A Real Tiger

The magazine’s football correspondent advises fans to deal with it.

The Interim President’s Agenda

Alan Garber on campus speech, academics, and his other Harvard priorities

Most popular

Reviving Neglected Space

Practicing architecture in Myanmar

Painter, Anew

Nell Painter reflects on leaving the ivory tower for art school at age 64.

"A Force on the Ice"

There has been a Moore on the ice for Harvard since 1996, when Mark Moore '00 matriculated. His brothers, Steve '01 and Dominic '03, followed...

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults