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Emerging Scholars: Secrets In A Song

Secrets In A Song

Erich D. Jarvis
Associate Professor of Neurobiology, Duke University Medical Center
Education: Ph.D., Molecular Neurobiology and Animal Behavior,
Rockefeller University of New York; B.A., Biology and Mathematics, Hunter College 
Age: 40

Dr. Erich D. Jarvis has contributed quite a bit to the field of neurobiology in just a few years. Chief among his list of accomplishments has been the introduction of a more effective method for producing experimental results. His research into songbirds and how they learn their songs has prompted a paradigm shift in conventional research methods.

“When I got into science, the common belief was to get animals to do things — the Pavlovian type of research — and then measure the results,” says Jarvis, who arrived at Duke University in 1998 and won the prestigious National Science Foundation Young Scientist Award in 2002. “I realized I wasn’t learning as much as I could from these animals’ natural behaviors.”

To facilitate his research on nocturnal songbirds, Jarvis recreated their natural surroundings in his lab. By studying the genetic structure
of their brains under such conditions, he determined how the birds learn their songs. “We freeze the brains within five to 10 minutes,” Jarvis explains. “Genes are constantly changing and we are capturing what the brain was like during natural conditions.”

He says understanding how behaviors cause changes in gene regulation is profoundly exciting. “I discovered behavior affects the
actual genes themselves. The conventional assumption is that genes cause behaviors, but Jarvis’ research suggests that it’s in fact “the other way around.”

The long-term goal of his research is to apply this knowledge to the ways the human brain generates language. Such information could help the recovery for stroke victims and could help treat speech afflictions like stuttering. Jarvis ultimately hopes to unlock the secret of how the human brain produces language.

Jarvis’ approach combines anatomical, behavioral and molecular biological methods. It’s an approach that has earned him a generous amount of recognition in the field. He won a 2005 National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award, an unrestricted grant of $500,000 that is renewed every year for five years.

The process of discovery was the primary motivation for his choice to pursue a scientific career in neurobiology rather than a professional career in one of his other passions — dance. A graduate of the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, the school featured in the 1980s television series “Fame,” Jarvis had two opportunities: join the Alvin Ailey Dance company and continue his work in modern dance and ballet or enter Hunter College with a Minority Biomedical Research Support grant and a Minority Access to Research Careers grant, both funded by NIH. Jarvis chose Hunter College.

Dr. Rivka Rudner, professor of biology at Hunter College, worked with Jarvis as an undergraduate. Together they published eight papers during Jarvis’ undergraduate career, most with Jarvis as the first author.
“He was my most incredible undergraduate,” Rudner says, recalling how Jarvis would often sleep in the lab to check on the results of their experiments. “I bless the day he chose me.”

Jarvis married Dr. Miriam Rivas while he was working in Rudner’s lab. Rivas now works in Jarvis’ lab, and the couple had their first child during his first year of graduate school. In fact, throughout his graduate years Jarvis was responsible for a household of six, including his widowed grandmother. His grandfather died two weeks after Jarvis began graduate school at Rockefeller University. Not long afterward, his father, a former chemist who was homeless for a time, was found shot to death in a park, apparently by gang members.

What Jarvis loves most about teaching is working one on one with students in his lab. He thrives on intense conversations with his students, and welcomes their challenges. He keeps track of his students once they move on.

“The measure of anyone’s success is the people you have trained and where they are going. Their success is my success,” he says.

By Crystal L. Keels

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