Vanderbilt neuroscientist Ken Catania receives MacArthur ‘genius grant’

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Kenneth C. Catania, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist who studies odd-looking mammals for clues about the workings of the human brain, was named Tuesday as a MacArthur Fellow.

More commonly known as “genius grants,” the fellowships are awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to a broad range of individuals “for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future,” according to a release from the foundation.

Each recipient receives a total of $500,000 “no strings attached” support over the next five years. The MacArthur Foundation requires no specific projects and asks for no accounting of how the money is used, “offering the opportunity for fellows to accelerate their current activities or take their work in new directions.”

Catania, associate professor of biological sciences, is one of 24 individuals to receive this year’s awards. He was recognized for his study of the sensory systems of insect-eating mammals, particularly the star-nosed mole, a wetland rodent with 22 highly sensitive tentacles attached to its nose that enable it to locate and identify food underground. Catania has found that the mole’s cortex, the central processing center for the brain, is organized in a spatial map that corresponds to the star-nose itself. He has drawn parallels between the star-nose workings and the way the retina in the human eye functions. Insight into such cortical mapping could lead to a better understanding of how complex skills are learned and how the brain can recover from injury or strokes.

“Through his integrative approach to understanding an unusual animal model, Catania generates new insights in the mammalian cortex — how it evolves, how it develops and how it responds to changing conditions,” the foundation said in its release.

Catania, who was notified of the award last week, said he doesn’t expect any dramatic changes in the near future; he plans to continue his teaching and research.

“I’ll continue to study star-nosed moles, water shrews, shrews and naked mole rats. I’ll continue to examine the most interesting species not in the mainstream – the sort of animals that tell us a lot about brains and how they work.”

He said the unrestricted nature of the award will allow him great latitude. “If not tied to the terms of a specific grant, there’s no telling what sort of new and different things that might be explored.

“But I should say I’ve been really fortunate to be funded by the National Science Foundation to get to this point. I owe a great debt to the NSF for the CAREER grant that offers similar freedom.”

Catania’s research has been supported through an NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant. Through that program, the NSF supports the work of promising researcher-educators in their early career. Catania also received the 2005 American Association of Anatomists‘ C.J. Herrick Award, an annual award given to recognize promising young investigators in the field of comparative neuroanatomy.

Catania is the second Vanderbilt faculty member to be named a MacArthur Fellow in recent years. Edgar Meyer, adjunct associate professor of bass at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, received the award in 2002.

“Ken Catania is a scholar of the highest order who also cares passionately about his students, and about the world around us,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee. “The MacArthur Foundation has chosen wisely, because this grant will give him the freedom to literally rewrite the book on behavior. Vanderbilt could not be more proud of him.”

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Nicholas S. Zeppos said, “Ken’s selection for this great honor should come as no surprise to those who have followed his extraordinary career. His work at the intersection of biology, psychology and neuroscience has set a new standard for interdisciplinary research. I am pleased and proud that he is at Vanderbilt.”

Catania has said that he first became interested in the star-nosed mole while he was working at the National Zoo as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland at College Park. His job was to collect small mammals, including star-nosed moles, which can be found in marshes and wetlands from Canada to Georgia.

Catania received a bachelor of science in zoology from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego. He began his career at Vanderbilt as a postdoctoral fellow in 1997. His articles have appeared in such journals as Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, and Nature Neuroscience.

In the MacArthur release, foundation president Jonathan Fanton said, “For 26 years, the MacArthur Fellows Program has recognized and supported individuals who inspire us. This new group of MacArthur Fellows illustrates our conviction that talented and creative individuals, free to follow their insights and instincts, will reveal new discoveries and make a difference in shaping our future.”

Anonymous nominators are invited each year from many fields to identify individuals with exceptional creativity and promise. A 12-member selection committee reviews the nominations and makes final recommendations to the foundations’ board of directors.

Contact: Elizabeth Latt, 615-322-NEWS

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