Electric Eels More Talented Than We Imagined, Catania Suggests

Dr. Kenneth Catania gives a lecture in the NIH Neuroscience Seminar Series.
Dr. Kenneth Catania gives a lecture in the NIH Neuroscience Seminar Series.

What would make you put your bare hand in a tank with an electric eel? Research. That’s the answer you might give if you’re “Vanderbilt’s most shocking dude.” A biologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Kenneth Catania studies evolutionary interpretations of animal behavior and how animals process sensory information. He gave a lecture recently as part of the NIH Neuroscience Seminar Series in the Porter Neuroscience Research Center.

Stevenson professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University and winner of a 2006 MacArthur “genius” grant, the University of Maryland graduate has studied several animals that are not typically examined in neurobiology—the masked shrew, tentacle snakes, the water shrew, even crocodiles.

NICHD’s Dr. Harry Burgess, who invited Catania to give the seminar, quipped that apparently an undergrad internship at the National Zoo “kicked off what looks like [Catania’s] lifelong passion for the starnosed mole.”

In 2011, Catania and colleagues patented the cortical representation of somatosensory input from the nasal rays of the star-nosed mole.

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Physicians Can Train Like Elite Athletes, Pugh Says

Elite athletes perfect their “A” game with electronic feedback they and their coaches may analyze of swim strokes, golf swings and numerous other motions and behaviors. Dr. Carla Pugh, guest speaker at a recent NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture, recognized early in her medical career that, like athletes, physicians could benefit from the data obtained with sensors and motor tracking devices to learn and improve their technique. Pugh is the Susan Behrens professor of surgical education and vicechair of education and patient safety at the University of Wisconsin.

As a high school athlete in swimming, track and softball, Pugh recalls feedback she received after every match. By contrast, after medical school and a surgical residency, she found that the concept of feedback got left behind. She returned to the classroom for a Ph.D. in education, including coursework in human-computer interactions, motivated by the question: How can we get the data such that no surgeon in training or in the clinic would ever practice their craft without getting continuous feedback on how they might improve?

In 17 years of research, the past 10 as an NIH grantee, Pugh has designed simulators with sensors and detectors that provide an objective assessment—through data—of medical skills. Clinicians in training and seasoned experts alike have lined up to use her simulators, contributing valuable performance data and gaining elusive feedback.

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