Second Nature

“I used to be a little defensive about studying such weird-looking animals,” says Ken Catania, pictured holding a juvenile Nile crocodile. “But then I realized that what makes these animals so strange is their extreme specialization and, for that very reason, there is a great deal we can learn from studying them.”
“I used to be a little defensive about studying such weird-looking animals,” says Ken Catania, pictured holding a juvenile Nile crocodile. “But then I realized that what makes these animals so strange is their extreme specialization and, for that very reason, there is a great deal we can learn from studying them.”
By Rob Simbeck

After a year of hard work on a doctoral thesis suggested by his adviser, Ken Catania made a fateful decision.

“It was clear that his first love was the star-nosed mole,” remembers Glenn Northcutt, his adviser at the University of California-San Diego, “and he came to me and told me that’s what he wanted to work on instead. I was reluctant to let him. The moles lived clear across the country, they were hard to keep and even harder to catch. I knew it was a long shot. Then one day Ken came and said, ‘Glenn, I really like working in your lab, but if you don’t let me work on star-nosed moles, I’m going to leave and find another one.’

“I thought, ‘I really don’t want to lose this kid,’” Northcutt says. “He’s a really bright young graduate student, and one way or the other he’s got a thesis wrapped up, whether he knows it or not. I said, ‘Go for it.’”

Catania did the collecting himself in Pennsylvania. Because the California lab did not have everything he needed for the project, he traveled back and forth between San Diego and Nashville, where he worked with Vanderbilt’s Jon Kaas, Distinguished Centennial Professor of Psychology and associate professor of cell and developmental biology. The research helped prove that the mole’s 22-lobed nose does not, as many suspected, serve as an extra “hand” or detect electrical fields, but rather serves as an extraordinarily sensitive organ of touch.

Catania would eventually come to Vanderbilt for postdoctoral work—he is now associate professor of biological sciences—and go on to a great deal more research on the mole.

“That work,” says Kaas, “made his career.”

Catania’s work with the star-nosed mole would indeed lay the groundwork for a career in neurobiology that is highly individualistic and highly successful.

The individualism is both stylistic and substantive. Catania’s very choice of creatures like the star-nosed mole, the naked mole rat and, most recently, the crocodile, earn him major style points. The approach he exhibited 15 years ago in pursuing his doctoral thesis—single-minded, hands-on, with a willingness to follow his gut and the ability to define a problem precisely to get it solved—is one he still embraces.

His success can be seen both in the strength of his output—a steady stream of technical papers as well as articles in general-interest magazines like Scientific American and Natural History—and in the grants and awards that have made him one of the university’s brightest lights. They include the John F. Kennedy Center Young Scientist Award, the Searle Scholars Award, the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship—nicknamed the “genius grant”—bestowed for “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.”

Few would argue whether those attributes apply to Catania, whose work cuts a broad swath through biology.

“Ken’s work bridges several areas, even though what he’s doing is quite unique,” says Charles Singleton, professor of biological sciences and chair of the department at Vanderbilt. “His work helps our understanding of how the brain is structured and how that structure is involved in its function, and within that he overlaps with people looking at the cellular aspects of neuroscience and the molecules involved in building synapses and sending signals. At the other end, his comparative studies relate brain structure and organization to behavioral differences among species.”

Catania is enthusiastic about operating without borders.

“I don’t see boundaries between different fields.”

—Ken Catania

“I don’t see boundaries between different fields,” he says. “I’m mainly in neuro-ethology, an integration of animal behavior and the neurosciences, so already the goal of the field is to be very broad. Even beyond that, you want to go to the natural environment of the animals you’re studying, since the behavior only makes sense if you look at where it evolved and what challenges these animals actually have. I think you can go from ecological studies to behavior studies to nervous-system studies and all the way down to molecules. To fully understand how these things work, you need to take a very interdisciplinary approach.”

Catania’s starting point is often simply detailed observation of behavior, sometimes drawn from high-speed filming he does himself. Such observation was key to his initial insights into the nerve structure of the nose of the star-nosed mole, of the ability of the mole and the water shrew to use “underwater sniffing” to follow scent trails underwater, and of the tentacled snake’s ability to use movement to direct prey toward its mouth.

His childhood helped lay the groundwork for the way in which curiosity and technique intersect in his work. His father was a psychologist who studied under B.F. Skinner, “so I had a strong link to scientific and logical ways of thinking about animal behavior,” he says. “My mother would take me out for long walks to look at nature, trees, and wildlife and birds, and I was one of those kids who was just obsessed with butterflies and other insects. That eventually led to snakes and turtles and whatever I could find.”

While he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, his passion turned into a career choice.

“I started doing research while simultaneously working at the National Zoo, and what was completely obvious then crystallized,” he says. “I worked there for a wonderful man who was the head curator of animals—Ed Gould. He was interested in the sensory system of star-nosed moles and introduced me to the system.”

Catania is known for bringing his work into the classroom, where his is an extremely popular presence.

“One course in particular, The Neurobiology of Behavior, is always oversubscribed,” says Singleton, “because it’s an interesting topic and because of Ken’s excellent skill as a teacher. Students really seem to take to his style and appreciate his care and his concern in helping them learn.”

“I love teaching that class,” says Catania. “I feel very fortunate that I’m actually teaching about the subject that I study. It’s a natural thing for me to translate what I think of as the excitement of all these interesting animals and what they can do into the classroom.”

Ken Catania examines a naked mole rat, a species that maintains a social structure similar to that of ants and termites.
Ken Catania examines a naked mole rat, a species that maintains a social structure similar to that of ants and termites.

The accompanying lab work gives him the chance to introduce students to the rigors of designing studies, collecting data and presenting reports.

“Students in the lab joke about figures being ‘Catania standard,’” he says with a laugh, “meaning that I want them to be very well done and precise, whether it’s a technical figure or a photograph—because you can do it well if you put the effort in.

“Science has a huge artistic side to it,” he adds. “That’s why I incorporate photography and illustrations in articles, to try to capture what these animals do so that people can see it.”

He is adamant, in fact, about exciting the public about the methods and importance of science, and he cites Carl Sagan as an early leader in the effort to do just that.

“Getting people excited about science is really important,” he says. “I think back to the things in my childhood that had a big impact on me, including a children’s book my parents gave me that had a star-nosed mole in it. When I found one dead near a stream in the woods behind our house, I knew what it was and had read about it. It was a little nudge in a direction that kept me thinking about where things lived and the ecology of different animals, and that kind of experience helped me have a sense of animal behavior and habitats that definitely carries through my career.”

His attraction to the lyrical side of the scientific world extends into his own life. He has jousted at Renaissance fairs and, as part of an intensive weeklong session dealing with crocodiles, learned the fine art of wrestling them.

“He never ceased to surprise me,” says Northcutt. “One day he said to me, ‘I want to go to the Philippines for a week. Do you have any objections?’ I said no and asked why he wanted to go. He blushed and said, ‘I’m going to enter a kickboxing tournament.’ I’m not sure what qualifications he has in martial arts, but I wouldn’t want to find out the hard way.”

His proposal to his wife, Elizabeth Catania, PhD’08, a research fellow at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, made no less an impression. Both are rock climbers, and he popped the question on a tiny grass-covered ledge on a cliff face “while we were attached to the wall,” she says. He had climbed onto the ledge just before her and strewn rose petals in the grass.

He continues to impress those around him. “Ken keeps coming up with new and wonderful approaches,” says Kaas. “He has that kind of curiosity. He sees something that puzzles him, then seeks to find answers. It’s the kind of curiosity people have as children that then gets suppressed as impractical. But Ken says, ‘I can find the answer.’”

His highly individualized approach, like his choice of projects, serves him well even as it sets him apart.

“Most people specialize—that’s the way you make it in science nowadays,” says Kaas. “More and more, it’s about knowing more about some little thing than anyone else. Ken just sees things in a much bigger context and has found a way to bring that into his work. That’s his career. That’s his unique contribution.”

Rob Simbeck’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Guideposts, Country Weekly, Field & Stream, Free Inquiry and many other publications. He has won three national awards for his work in the Nashville Scene and two international awards for his outdoor writing. His website is

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