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No Joke

by Dwayne O’Brien, MA’05 No Comment

This MacArthur genius is as known for his creativity and humor as his landmark research.

catania-2Ken Catania is a funny guy.

The associate professor of biological sciences is also soft-spoken, modest, articulate, creative and quick to laugh. In life, teaching and research, he always looks for the opportunity to do the fun thing—appropriate, since he’s a world-class practical joker. Some of his gems are the stuff of neuroscience legend.

Take the one with the Maryland State trooper, for example.

In the early 1990s, Catania and a carload of fellow neuroscience students were en route to a seminar when the car was pulled over by a huge, surly Maryland trooper. The trooper started asking the students hard questions. Neuroscience questions. It wasn’t until they got into an argument amongst themselves over the number of mammalian cranial nerves that Catania’s friends realized they had been set up—the trooper was a college friend of Catania’s. It took a year to plan, but being meticulous helps make Catania a great scientist. 

He is also a genius; so says the MacArthur Foundation, which in 2006 rewarded Catania’s ground-breaking work on the sensory systems, brain evolution, and behavior of unusual mammals like star-nosed moles, naked mole rats and water shrews with a $500,000 grant. Often referred to as ‘genius grants,’ the MacArthur awards are given annually to a select few to spend as the recipients see fit—no strings attached.

Life in the Woods

Catania’s interest in animals and behavior traces back to countless hours spent in the woods and fields of Columbia, Maryland. “I grew up in a sort of interesting planned community,” the neuroscientist says. “The main feature was that there were a lot of open spaces—lakes, streams and forested land—interspersed with the houses and schools. It had a big impact on me.” 

Star-nosed moles are some of the oddest-looking creatures on earth and Catania is one of only a handful of people who know how and where to catch them in the wild.

Catania’s parents also had an impact on his life’s work. “My dad is a psychologist,” Catania says. “He was actually a student of [famed American psychologist] B.F. Skinner, which is a pretty big calling card. He helped me to learn to think carefully about the world and behavior.” His mother’s influence was equally important. She often took the youngster for long walks to look at the plants and trees. “It wasn’t long before I was dragging home everything,” Catania says. “My mother would put up with turtles, snakes, salamanders, toads and frogs, and every creature I could get hold of. She was very understanding.” 

Catania developed insights and intuition about wildlife that served him well. As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, he volunteered at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “I fit in really well there, and they started to ask me to help with the research and even to collect some of the animals,” he says. “I had a knack for being able to find animals and that’s where I first got involved with star-nosed moles.” 

Investigating the Odd and Unknown

Star-nosed moles are some of the oddest-looking creatures on earth and Catania is one of only a handful of people who know how and where to catch them in the wild. At least once a year, he travels to a certain spot in northern Pennsylvania to collect specimens of the amazing little mammal. 

Catania’s research into the neurobiology and behavior of the star-nosed mole began as a graduate student at the University of California San Diego. He has found that an abnormally large part of the mole’s brain and nervous system are devoted to its fleshy, pink, 22-tentacled nose, which gives the animal an amazing sense of touch which, in some ways, parallels human vision. The mole detects food underground by constantly sweeping its nose back and forth. If the tips of the appendages make contact with a potential food item such as a worm, the mole will bring the even more sensitive central portion of its nose to bear on the object. If it is food, the mole then gulps it down. The entire process from detection to dinner takes a mere 200 milliseconds. 

Since coming to Vanderbilt in early 1995, Catania’s name and reputation seem inextricably linked to the moles, although his lab features several species of scurrying little creatures equally as unusual. “Water shrews are smaller than mice and can swim like fish,” Catania says. “We discovered that they can actually smell underwater by blowing bubbles out of their noses and re-inhaling the bubbles.” He also studies naked mole rats: hairless, burrowing little rodents that are the only known non-insect to live in colonies organized like beehives. “One queen bears all of the young while the rest are workers,” Catania says. “They also have life spans far beyond other rodents—twenty years or more. I’d like to find out why.”

catania-1Catania likes studying the star-nosed moles, water shrews and naked mole rats, among other things. “I’m very interested in animals with small brains and how fast they are,” Catania says. “I think there’s going to be some advantages to small brains as far as speed goes.” And although many recipients spend their MacArthur grants on personal needs, Catania is trying to purchase, preserve and protect the land in Pennsylvania where he finds the star-nosed moles.

Creative Touches

Catania and his wife, Liz, are both Vanderbilt researchers and avid rock climbers. Catania proposed to her on a flower-decorated ledge located halfway up a cliff face. The elaborate event took months of planning and the help of friends, but he says the surprise was worth it. The couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary on Halloween. 

Between research, collecting trips, and settling into newly-married life, Catania also supervises a research lab, takes stunning nature photography (of his research subjects, but also of animals in the wild), and serves as one of the world’s leading experts on his uncommon mammals.

Catania’s creativity helps his students understand complex concepts. In his Neurology of Behavior class, he uses made-to-order replicas to demonstrate the classic case of railroad worker Phineas Gage, who suffered behavioral changes after surviving an accident which sent a railroad tamping iron through his skull. 

Hefting the nearly 14 pound iron, Catania explains that the demonstration helps students learn and remember. “It’s always good to try to do the fun thing, to help make others’ lives more fun and interesting.”

photo credit: John Russell

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