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Erich Jarvis Ph.D.
Erich Jarvis Ph.D. Erich Jarvis Ph.D.


Today Erich Jarvis, PhD, is an award-winning scientist who runs a $1 million lab at Duke University that does ground breaking research on the brain structures of vocal learning animals But that wasn’t always the case He was a B average student, obtaining a few 'C's in high school, and when he was child, he stood on welfare lines with his mother and knew what it was like to go without food for a few days when money was tight He went to the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City, the same year the movie Fame came out about the school Dr Jarvis’ ambition was to be an influential dancer His father, James Jarvis, trained for an early science career, was skipped two grades in elementary school for his advanced abilities, and attended the City College of the City University of New York at 16 years old At 10 years old, he was able to re-write the mathematical proof of Einstien’s theory of relativity, something he did for fun.

His father’s dream was to become a scientist and study the origins of the universe But he was unable to realize that dream, partly because of racial barriers and partly for a drug experiments he conducted on himself during the 1960s and 1970s cultural revolution He ultimately ended up homeless Despite those early hardships, Dr Jarvis’ mostly middle class family of performing artists, business, legal, and nurse professionals instilled in him the work ethic and the drive to excel When he graduated high school, he gave up his ambition to be a dancer to pursue science because he thought it would have more impact on the world His mother, Valeria McCall, taught him to do something bold that will make the world a better place to live in He was following that dream Dr Jarvis turned down an opportunity to audition for the Alvin Ailey dance company to attend Hunter College where he started in remedial classes in English and Math.

Despite these obstacles, as an undergraduate he entered the laboratory of Rivka Rudner, whom he calls his Science Mom, and managed to publish six peer-reviewed papers in well-known scientific journals He performed research on bacterial protein synthesis genes "The transition from dance to science was actually quite natural because science is quite creative," Jarvis said His dance training gave him the discipline and perseverance to keep at it despite the difficulties of bench science Then it was on to graduate school at The Rockefeller University, where his interest in neurobiology ultimately led him to work with Dr Fernando Nottebohm, to research the molecular biology of songbird brain systems, as a model to study brain pathways that control vocal learning Vocal learning is a critical behavioral substrate for spoken language He continued on in the same lab as a post doctoral fellow, publishing 10 papers in all that had an influence his field He continued obtained a faculty position at the Duke University Medical Center at the age of 33, and published a series of additional significant papers on the relationships between genes and brain pathways for learned behavior Dr.

Jarvis research earned him the prestigious Alan T Waterman award in 2002, the National Science Foundation’s highest honor for a young scientist, The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Directors’ Pioneer Award in 2005, one of NIH highest awards, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) position in 2008 In his early research days, Jarvis was frustrated by the way much brain research was conducted because it seemed artificial to him Rather than conduct experiments on animals that had little relevance to their natural behavior, he chose to work on animals in their awake behaving states as much as possible “When I look at my upbringing, growing up as an African American with some part Native American you always just think, natural is better," he said His work ultimately mapped the brain networks responsible for certain species of birds’ ability to learn new songs through imitation This important ability is shared with only a few species - whales, dolphins, bats and humans- and is a key building block of human language He discovered useful patterns of behaviorally-regulated gene expression that lead to the identification of vocal learning brain pathways across varies, species, social-context differences in brain activation, night vision magnetic detecting brain regions for night migratory bird species, and differential regulation of a gene, FoxP2, in songbirds that was found to be necessary for normal speech development in humans "Bird brains aren’t as different from mammal brains as people thought," says Jarvis "By accident I ended up in something that gets me closer to understanding the human brain than if I had studied anything else".

To recognize these homologies, in 2004 and 2005, he published several influential papers with a consortium of scientist he organized that revised the 100-year old terminology of the avian brain and the implications for our understanding of vertebrate brain evolution Now the entire field of avian brain research is using the new terminology and view Now, with funds that comes his NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and HHMI, he hopes to discover the genes that construct vocal learning circuits in birds and humans, and manipulate them to be able to control and repair vocal learning behavior His approach has been to spend the money quickly, but efficiently, in hopes of devising new technology and experiments to move the research forward, a strategy that minority scientists rarely follow - to their disadvantage, he said He obtained this the advice of one his former colleagues and mentors, Dr Larry Katz (now deceased), also a former HHMI investigator He said, “starting a lab or a major project is like flying an airplane You have to let out a lot of fuel to get the plane off the ground Once it is up, you can then spend less fuel” "Growing up in a family that is minority middle class, you’re taught to hoard money," said Jarvis.

"It’s a hard thing for minority scientists to learn It took me two years There are people starving who don’t have good jobs but I’m spending $50,000 on a piece of equipment But I know if I don’t do that I won’t be able to compete in today’s world" .

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