A fragrance can whisk you away to another time and place. The crisp, salty air of a seaside vacation. A freshly cut lawn on a summer’s day. The hug of a beloved grandparent. A scent has the remarkable ability to conjure up a wealth of stories, emotions and memories.
Aidan Niswender has just the nose for it.
Niswender, a USC Viterbi graduating senior in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, has spent the last few years exploring a newfound passion for fragrance design. What began as an unusual hobby during the COVID-19 shutdown soon exploded into a potential career as a perfumer creating evocative, customized scents for clients.
A keen photographer and videographer also minoring in cinematic arts, Niswender has always had a strong artistic side. When he discovered perfumery, it felt like a perfect combination of everything he loved: a creative field grounded in chemistry and scientific practice with a powerful capacity to conjure up an aesthetic.
“I just love being able to tie scent to a memory,” Niswender said. “The first cologne that I bought, I kept it because it reminded me so much of my dad. He used to wear white T-shirts when he got home from work and would go out and garden. The cologne smelled exactly like those white T-shirts. Every time I wear it, I’m just reminded of that.”
Niswender stumbled upon perfumery by chance when his roommate gifted him a set of small bottles of fragrance samples. It sparked his curiosity, and he began sourcing fragrances online. But because it was early in the pandemic and he was limited in his ability to research in person, it was a painstaking process of ordering and returning to find what worked best.
“I would research the fragrance notes that I liked and didn’t like, and I started to build a collection. But I soon realized I couldn’t spend any more money on cologne. I need to start making my own,” Niswender said.
Crafting the perfect aroma
Niswender soon found himself sourcing bottles of the two key perfume components: essential oils — scents that are naturally extracted from the oils of plants and fruit — as well as aroma chemicals — molecules synthesized in labs to mimic the fragrance of something you can’t extract.
From there, Niswender created his own portable fragrance design set up at his desk. Aside from the oils and chemicals, his equipment includes lab-grade scales, beakers and droppers.
“I create hypotheses and formulas and tweak and add ingredients from there,” Niswender said. “It’s trial and error because you can have something that you really like, and you mix it with one drop of something incorrectly, and it can smell horrible.”
While a scientific approach to the work is vital, particularly when ensuring products are appealable, accurately measured and safe for human skin, Niswender feels that fragrance is more of an art than a science.
“It’s much more about telling a story, as you would with a painting or a photograph. You can really transport people to a certain time and a place,” Niswender said. “It’s about bringing the science into that. ‘How can I formulate this molecule in this way to combine with this oil to create that artistic experience?’ I really do see [the scientific and artistic] sides of my brain working back and forth more than I have with anything that I’ve done, and that’s super exciting to me.”
When crafting his stories through fragrance, Niswender said he loves harnessing notes like black tea and woody scents like cedar, as well as scents that sit close to your skin – just like his dad’s favorite worn-in white T-shirt.
“I really love scents that smell like your skin but better. That’s accomplished by using a combination of synthetic molecules like Ambroxan, which is meant to mimic the synthetic note ambergris, found in the excretion of whales,” Niswender said. “It’s a really nice musky, soft smell, with a little bit of a marine scent from the ambergris.”
A deep well of inspiration through research and extracurricular life
Niswender has certainly kept himself busy throughout his studies with a wide variety of research and artistic interests. He has been taking photographs and creating video content for several years, and it’s something he is eager to continue pursuing.
Nisewender’s passion for cinema recently fed into his industrial and systems engineering research. In the wake of the 2021 fatal shooting incident on the set of the film Rust, he chose to explore safety culture on film sets, in particular, the health and safety of stunt people, cast and crew.
Sustainability is also a strong research interest of Niswender’s, with a recent project examining how to improve the carbon footprint of medical procedures that use scopes.
While this array of research, artistic and professional interests may seem overwhelming, Niswender said that college was an ideal time for students to discover the unique pathways open to them.
“Take the time to be exploratory and figure out what you like and how you can combine things, because it just makes you more unique and interesting,” Niswender said. “I love being able to forge these connections in my mind and figure out how one part of my life can help support the other things I’m interested in.”
Next up for Niswender? He is planning to take a year to explore his options in Los Angeles, where he has made a lot of great connections in the supportive local perfumery scene. He hopes to meet with more perfumers, hone his skills and refine his branding. Then, in 2024, the plan is to move onto graduate school at Stanford, where he will study environmental engineering and design.
“Right now, my plans are to pursue perfumery and pursue photography and videography, and then possibly launch my own business, whether that’s in perfumery or in sustainability,” Niswender said. “I’ve greatly enjoyed meeting other perfumers in Los Angeles, and I think it’s going to be a fun, collaborative process.”
Published on May 5th, 2023
Last updated on May 5th, 2023