Creative Retirement Institute class to explore the sense of smell and fragrance

“We don’t think much about smell until we lose it.” So says Dr. Reitha Weeks, instructor for the upcoming class for the Creative Retirement Institute (CRI) titled Exploring the Sense of Smell and Fragrance. The class runs Feb. 17 and 24.

For those unfamiliar with CRI, it is an organization affiliated with Edmonds College and located on the college’s campus. It is a member-driven, self-supporting organization whose mission is to provide affordable, quality, lifelong learning opportunities for adults in a supportive environment. Each academic term CRI offers about 30 classes. Since the pandemic began, CRI classes have been online utilizing the Zoom platform. A class can be one to four two-hour sessions. There are no grades, no homework, no tests. Classes are just for the fun of learning.

Dr. Weeks’ class promises to be one of the most exciting this term, organizers say.

“What is smell?” Weeks asks. How do you describe the smell of a gardenia to someone? Although it is one of the five senses that we use to connect to the world around us, we have a limited ability to share what we smell. The best that we seem to be able to do is say that a smell is “like” another smell. The problem is compounded by the fact that different individuals have completely different perceptions of the same smell. Despite these issues, smell plays a fundamental role in our psychological makeup through memory and emotions.

Weeks will explore the sense of smell from the biology that makes it possible, to the chemistry behind fragrances and essential oils. The first class will discuss the biological path from the nose to the brain, the connection of smell and memory, the identification of odor molecules and their sources, and the ability of humans to smell compared to other animals. The second class will investigate essential oils, the creation of perfumes, product labels and regulations, and aromatherapy claims.

Weeks will also delve into the olfactory dysfunction that occurs in many patients with COVID-19 infections. The loss of smell, or anosmia, is such a common symptom in COVID-19 that it is often used as a diagnostic tool. Most people who suffer from anosmia recover quickly. A recent study in JAMA Otolaryngology found that 89% recovered within four weeks. However, the remainder of the patients continued to suffer from anosmia, parosmia (odor alteration), or phantosmia (odor hallucinations). Researchers worldwide have been working at warp speed to understand the causes of these olfactory dysfunctions. Weeks will discuss the most current information in this fascinating but debilitating condition.

In a face-to-face class on smell, Weeks gives students the same olfactory experience by sharing samples to smell. Since the class is online, this option is unavailable, but Weeks has several ways in which she pulls everyone into the same chemosensory environment. She has each class member recall a smell. They will also take surveys where they rate their sense of smell against that of individuals of a comparable age. They will be called upon to recollect the emotion or a memory that a smell evokes. Even though the class is online, it becomes a stimulating, experiential activity.

Weeks brings a wealth of talent to this class. She received her bachelor of science degree from Oregon State University and her PhD in genetics from the University of Washington in 1987. She worked for 13 years in the biotech industry in Seattle, moving from bench scientist to company director, jobs which involved her in business and regulatory decisions as well as discovery science. She was program manager for science outreach at Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) for nine years. She was responsible for curriculum development and workshops for teachers, for educational conferences for researchers, and for a variety of science outreach programs and collaborations. Since 2014, she has been program coordinator for Shoreline Community College’s biotech summer camps for high school students. She is on the board and an active member of the Seattle Chapter of the Association for Women in Science.

In addition to her classes being informative, students love them. Typical comments from students who have been in her class previously include the following.

“Superb instructor.”

“Totally open and engages whole class.”

“Great slides, very well prepared.”

“A keeper.”

“Very informative.  Learned much more than I expected.”


“Best CRI class I’ve taken.”

“Enjoyed this class immensely.”

“Great instructor.”

The class will be taught online for two consecutive Wednesdays, Feb. 17 and Feb. 24, from 10 a.m. to noon.

To register for a class, click on Follow the instructions under “Register Online” in the right-hand column. If you need addition help registering, contact CRI at or leave a message at 425-640-1830. Someone will get back to you as soon as possible.

While you are at the CRI website, look around at the other classes offered. You are bound to find selections that will tickle your brain cells.

— By Rosemary Wander


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