By Andrei Blakely
He was 10 years old and the rare, tiny mammal with the weird pink snout was lying near a stream in back of his parent's Wilde Lake home.
"I was surprised and amazed because I knew it was a seldom-seen animal lying there in my own backyard," said Catania, who is now 41 and teaches neurobiology at Vanderbilt University.
Although Catania stops short of saying his discovery of the mole in the 1970s propelled him to an award-winning career in neurobiology, he allows that it helped to spark his interest in animals and science.
As an adult, Catania has converted his interest in the nearly-blind rodent into a career passion that has led him to a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records and, most recently, receipt of a coveted MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which are commonly known as "genius" grants.
Catania was one of 25 people in science, the arts and other disciplines who received the grants in 2006. The awards are given annually to between 20 and 30 people who show unusual creativity and promise in their work.
In awarding Catania a $500,000, no-strings-attached grant, foundation officials said they were recognizing his groundbreaking research on the star-nosed mole's unique sensory system, which relies on 22 appendages that sprout from its nose to tunnel through the earth in search of food.
His studies have allowed him to provide insights into how the mammalian brain is organized and how different senses of touch correspond with space in the mole's brain, Catania said.
"Through his integrative approach to understanding an unusual animal model, Catania generates new insights into the mammalian cortex -- how it evolves, how it develops, and how it responds to changing conditions," MacArthur officials said in announcing the award.
'Natural things' were spark
Catania credits his experience growing up near Wilde Lake's wooded areas and streams with allowing him to study animals at a young age.
"Having natural things around is the way many biologists understand the natural world," he said in a telephone interview. "That (environment) was part of Columbia."
The Catanias moved to Columbia from New Jersey in 1973, when Kenneth's father, Charles Catania, was hired as a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
They bought what was the first single-family home built in the planned community, on Rivulet Row, from its original owner, said Charles Catania, who still lives in the house with his wife, Constance.
As a child, Kenneth loved the outdoors and was skilled at catching wild animals and fish, Constance said, adding that, on the family's first day on Rivulet Row, a then-8-year-old Kenneth walked to Wilde Lake, reached into the water and caught a fish with his bare hands.
"He always had an eye for seeing things that others could not see," adds Catania's father.
'Boy just wanted to learn'
Catania, who attended Bryant Woods Elementary School, Wilde Lake Middle School and Wilde Lake High School, first learned about the star-nosed mole through books he read as a child.
Tom Brzezinski, the librarian at Bryant Woods Elementary School, said he is not surprised that Catania won the genius grant.
"That boy just wanted to learn," Brzezinski said.
Catania did not begin studying the mole in earnest until he worked at the National Zoo, in Washington D.C., while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, from which he graduated in 1988 with a bachelor's degree in zoology. He then earned a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego, in 1997.
"I knew that many biologists had wondered about that species," Catania said of the mole. "But no one had figured out what was going on with their sensory system."
He finds the moles in north-central Pennsylvania. Although he considers the animals, with their star-shaped pink snouts and claws, to be pretty, he realizes that others find them ugly.
"Some people think they are the scariest thing they have ever seen," Catania said.
Scientific 'gold mine'
A "gold mine" of scientific information exists in the study of the sensory system of the mole and other animals, Catania said.
His discovery of how the 22 pink, fleshy appendages that sprout from the mole's nose help it to locate and consume food faster than any other known mammal merited recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records, he added.
The mole takes only one-fifth of a second to ingest its prey from the time it touches the prey with one of its appendages, according to a June 2000 article Catania published in Natural History magazine.
With the grant now in hand, Catania said he will continue to study the mole, though he is undecided exactly how he will use the prize money.
"I am sure that I am going to use it in the spirit of the award," he said.
E-mail Andrei Blakely at Andrei Blakely@patuxent.com