How Ken Catania followed his star-nosed moles to an alternate funding goldmine.

A star-nosed mole   Credit: Ken Catania

If you ever find yourself the target of an elaborate practical joke perpetrated by neurobiologist Ken Catania, take solace that he probably planned the scheme for months, or even years.

Consider, for example, his state trooper gag: As a graduate student in the early 1990s, while attending a conference in Washington, D.C., with some colleagues, Catania promised his friends they’d get a private viewing of animals at a nearby zoo if they delivered a bag of marijuana to a few of its employees. He then arranged for a state trooper to pull them over on the car ride there.

As scripted, the cop found the bag of marijuana—actually oregano from Catania’s mother’s kitchen—in the glove box. He grilled the unwitting students until they broke down into a nervous argument about cranial nerves.

It took Catania two years to plan, but the tale became a bit of neuroscience lore.

Catania crafts his science experiments in the same meticulous, creative manner. Armed with a high-speed camera and knowledge of ecology, biology, and neurology, he can deduce the inner workings of the brain just by observing the behavior of obscure animals.
In September, this ingenuity won him a MacArthur “genius grant,” a renowned fellowship worth $500,000.

An associate professor at Vanderbilt University, Catania is an old-fashioned biologist: He truly loves animals. He has the curiosity of a young boy who tromps around in the woods collecting bugs and turtles. He’s the kind of person who can describe even a weasel with adoration. “It was an absolutely beautiful animal,” he said, remembering the first time he encountered one in the wild, “so intelligent and sly looking.”

His chosen animals, at least for research, are those with extremely sensitive senses of touch. Mole-rats, water shrews, and star-nosed moles burrow their way through a network of Plexiglas tunnels and chambers filled with soil in special climate-controlled rooms in Catania’s lab. The peculiar critters are blind, but have keen sensory systems: The star-nosed mole, which has 22 pink, fleshy appendages that sprout from the front of its face, may be able to feel an object down to its microscopic level. Catania has discovered that these specialized animals have particularly well-defined brain regions that control their sensory functions.

With intense fascination, Catania observes the way these animals behave in their environments—how they eat or how they move—and compares the behavior with the organization of their brains. By studying brain maps—from slices of brain so thin they can be laid down flat on a microscope with light easily passing through—he can infer how the animals’ brains change in response to their environment and how they’ve evolved over time.

He can tell you from his observations, for example, that it takes about 25 milliseconds for the star-nosed mole to decide whether or not a particular insect is edible: 12 milliseconds for a signal to travel from the mole’s nose to its brain, eight milliseconds for its brain to identify it, and another five for the signal to travel back to its muscles.

Ken Catania   Courtesy of Ken Catania

This breakdown may seem like an extraneous footnote—the kind of detail many scientists overlook. But Catania used the measurements to hypothesize that star-nosed moles have evolutionarily reached their foraging speed limit—their muscles can move from insect to insect quicker than their brains can process information about each bug. In other words, they are literally eating as fast as they can.

Catania’s observation yielded important clues about how quickly mammalian brain circuitry can work. The finding also landed Catania a splashy paper in Nature in 2005.

“The discovery was remarkable,” said Glenn Northcutt, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, who was Catania’s graduate advisor. “The way [Catania’s team] demonstrated it was brilliant—so clear cut and straightforward. It was like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

The painfully modest Catania would likely never regale you with the story of his discovery. When asked about his achievements, he takes on a bashful grimace, as if he’d rather slink into one of his mole’s tunnels than talk about himself.

“I don’t know that I’ve spent much time talking to Ken about Ken,” said Heather Eisthen, a Michigan State University neurobiologist and Catania’s colleague.

In fact, you could have several lengthy and in-depth conversations with him and never find out that he is a national champion in Kali, the Filipino martial art, or a skilled photographer who takes beautiful portraits of mole embryos, or one of only a handful of people who can catch star-nosed moles in the wild.

He certainly wouldn’t tell you that the MacArthur Foundation just certified him as a genius.

But, be careful not to confuse Catania’s gentle manner with a lack of drive. If he wants to know why water shrews blow bubbles and suck them back in, that’s what he’ll study. It’s a singular trait he’s had since grad school.

When asked about his achievements, the painfully modest Catania takes on a bashful grimace, as if he’d rather slink into one of his mole’s tunnels than talk about himself.

“I was outside smoking,” Northcutt said, recalling an encounter with then-grad student Catania, “and Ken says to me ‘I want to work with star-nosed moles, and if you don’t let me, I’m going to go to another lab.’”

Catania has made a career out of following his curiosity and doing what he loves, but his studies haven’t always brought a steady stream of grant money. Large funding bodies, such as the National Institutes of Health, often have strict requirements on how grants can be used, forcing scientists to curb their experiments to fit those parameters. As a result, Catania spent most of 2002 and 2003 applying for alternative funding.

The $500,000 of MacArthur money can be spent in any manner its recipient chooses. Catania already has an idea about how to use it.

“I’ve often wanted to preserve a habitat to use for looking at animal interactions,” Catania said. “One of the things people can appreciate about loss of habitat is that not only are you losing species and places they can live, but you’re also getting a generation of people who are less connected to the natural world.”

Or he could use it to craft the most elaborate prank in neuroscience history.

Originally published October 19, 2006

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