UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering


IHE x Badu: Smell training

1 March 2024

We're working to get more Black engineers into healthcare engineering. Here's one way we're doing that.

Giada Brianza talking to a student who is wearing a VR headset

Engineering is all about finding solutions to problems, right? Well we’ve got a problem in healthcare engineering: we don’t have enough Black healthcare engineers to tackle the problems facing the Black community in the UK.

Black communities face things like higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, prostate cancer or mental health issues. Some of these issues are due to genetics but some are due to lower socioeconomics and disparities in healthcare Black people face. These disparities are seen when Black people are 50%  as likely to go through a limb amputation[1] or 3 times as likely to go through kidney disease when suffering with type 2 diabetes[2].

It's a huge problem, and maybe bigger than the IHE to tackle by itself but we want to do something about it, so we partnered with BADU, a local organisation working to help uplift Black and Asian school aged children from the Hackney/ East London area. BADU are doing some amazing work uplifting a generation of people who are not normally given the space or chance to excel.

We organised workshops with academics from UCL and students from BADU who were making their choices for university, thus hoping to get more people into engineering. For our first workshop, we spoke to researchers Giada Brianza and Ceylan Besevli to demonstrate their smell training device to a group of 15 students, and the importance of smell training.

On Thursday 21 January 2024, after work and school, we all went to UCL Marshgate with our tote bags and trolleys to host the workshop. Ceylan and Giada started by setting the scene on why our sense of smell is so important and how we can train our noses to make sure we don’t lose the ability to smell as we get older. One fascinating thing we all learnt was how critical smell is as a baby. Babies develop their sense of smell earlier than their sight or hearing and use smell to decipher where their mother’s milk is – just from smell alone! We also learnt that losing your sense of smell as you age can also lead to things like dementia and Alzheimer’s so make sure you look after your sense of smell!

workshop setting with students from Badu sat around two tables and Giada and Ceylan showing things to them

In the two hour workshop, Giada and Ceylan had a few stations to show us their smell training.

  1. Jelly babies: Pinch your nose and eat a jelly baby. Can you taste it properly? Open your nose and all the flavours should come in. Smell is a big factor in taste.
  2. Smell training device: Using essential oils coming out of the device, the students smelt different essential oils coming out of the device and they had to guess what the smell was. A mobile phone app was used to change the smells.
  3. A VR headset to show how scents influence body image. Users performed two tasks - adjusting the body avatar based on their perception of themselves (sizes and appearance) and playing basketball while smelling three different scents.

The workshop was well received. Shannon Latouche, Mentoring and Workforce Development Lead for BADU was present during the workshop and mentioned that ‘Our mentees loved the experiences and were blown away by the facts presented. Thank you for organisation such an exciting workshop and we are really looking forward to the upcoming ones!’.