UNSW Research Fellow, Dr Katharina Gaus, has been awarded one of the world's most prestigious grants to investigate the cells that govern our sense of smell.

Dr Gaus, a cell biologist based at the Centre for Vascular Research, and her US-based collaborator have won $US750,000 over three years from the Human Frontier Science Program Organisation (HFSP).

The HFSP supports novel, innovative and interdisciplinary basic research focused on the complex mechanisms of living organisms.

Dr Gaus' collaborator is Dr Johannes Reisert an electrophysiologist based at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

"What is interesting about the cells that are involved in our sense of smell is that they have two different functions: as a sensor in the nasal cavity and as neurons to process smell."

"Because they have these two functions, their structure is different from other cells," she says.

The collaborators hope to build a new microscope, to allow them to see how these cells convert the chemicals of smell into electrical signals in the brain.

The research could also lead to new understandings of other cell types.

"We have complete freedom to pursue this novel research field, which incorporates two very different disciplines," says Dr Gaus.

"And it's not every day that you get a letter from a Nobel prize winner (Dr Torsten Wiesel), the Secretary General of the HFSP!"