The Side Job: Maartje smells all sorts of things

'You don’t have to have an extremely good sense of smell to do this.'
Photo Jacco Löwer

Who: Maartje Vijgenboom (25)
What: Smelling samples
Why: Maartje has a good sense of smell
Hourly wage: €11.16 per hour (minimum wage)

You’ve got to make ends meet somehow. We can all borrow from Uncle Duo, but there are also students who earn money in unusual ways, such as Maartje Vijgenboom (25), a Master’s student of Biology. She puts her senses to good use as a ‘sniffer’ in a sensory lab.

‘It isn’t always pleasant, like when I have to assess the smell of a pigsty. I am never told what I will smell, and it usually remains unclear to me what the smell is exactly: it’s just a bit gassy or a bit soapy. And my colleagues and I don’t talk about it so we don’t influence each other.

On my first day it felt weird to sniff at a machine

I work at Bureau Blauw, an institute for air quality research. I get asked a lot of questions about my work, so it’s nice to be able to explain it here. Bureau Blauw takes samples from factories and tests them for odour concentration. It might be about one particular substance from a production process, for example. As a panel member, I assess the perceptibility of the odour. And I sometimes also rate the pleasantness of the odour on a scale of -4 to +4.

‘Before I smell the substance, I smell some buthanol to “reset” my nose. Comparable to taking a bite of a dry cracker and a sip of water when you’re on a tasting panel. Then two tubes come out of a machine. One tube contains the odour sample, the other a placebo. The machine mixes clean air with the odour sample in the appropriate concentrations. At first the smell is at low concentrations and the concentration is gradually increased.

‘When I heard about this work in my first year as an undergraduate, I was sceptical. On my first day, it felt weird to sniff at a machine. But it is a chill way of earning some money, and I can do my own work between the tests. Sometimes I study during my working hours. I do have sharp senses, but you don’t have to have an extremely good sense of smell to do this: what they really want is a panel that is representative of the average Dutch person’s sense of smell. So you can’t join if your sense of smell is especially strong or poor. My friends really think it’s definitely the right job for me. And it isn’t always nasty. I got to smell coffee once too!’

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