Jarvis, Erich

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Erich Jarvis


Neurobiologist, educator

An associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University and a leading expert in learning and cognitive science, Dr. Erich Jarvis has done extensive research into bird song that provides unique insight into human learning and development. Throughout his career, the scientist has challenged the traditional model of bird brain construction, posited new evolutionary connections between brain development and learning capacity, and opened new vistas for the study of cognitive development. Jarvis credits his youth spent in the Harlem neighborhood of New York and his troubled family life as key factors that enabled him to succeed in a career in science.

Jarvis was born on May 6, 1965, in Harlem. He and his three siblings were the children of musician and amateur scientist James Reginald Jarvis and Sasha Valeria McCall, a gospel singer. Jarvis has said that his parents were the inspiration for his career in science, describing his mother in a 2003 New York Times interview with Claudia Dreifus as "a 60's idealist … who always wanted me to do something important and good for humanity." While his mother inspired him to serve humanity, it was from his father that Jarvis inherited a love of nature and science.

Jarvis's parents divorced in 1970, and his father spent most of the rest of his life suffering from what was later diagnosed as drug-induced schizophrenia. James Jarvis, a prodigy in math and science, graduated from the High School of Music and Art at age fifteen and attended City College of New York for three years studying chemistry before dropping out. After his parents' divorce, Jarvis saw his father only sporadically and recalls him as more of a friend than a parent. For more than six years, Jarvis's father was homeless, living in caves and wooded areas of New York City parks, where he kept logs of observations regarding animals, plants, and astronomical phenomena. "He'd show up in our lives now and then, after long periods of living in caves or in the woods," Jarvis told Dreifus in the New York Times. "He would tell us wonderful stories about nature, about the stars."

The longest period Jarvis spent with his father was in 1984, when his father emerged from the woods—having lost his toes to frostbite—and spent a year living with his son and father (Jarvis's paternal grandfather). "It was a real reunion," Jarvis recalled in a 2002 interview with People magazine. Over the course of a year, Jarvis's father tutored him in philosophy and calculus. In 1989 James Jarvis was found dead in a city park near his home in Washington Heights, apparently the victim of a random shooting. In a New York Times interview with Sara Rimer, Jarvis said of his father: "I don't know how many homeless people out there are scientists.… But my father was a scientist. He was an explorer. He was studying survival techniques. He wanted to find the universal law of all laws."

During his youth Jarvis and his family endured periods of financial hardship and relied heavily on the support of extended family. Jarvis attended the High School of the Performing Arts in Brooklyn, where he became an accomplished student in ballet and ethnic and modern dance. Though he was offered an opportunity to dance with the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, he was also offered a scholarship, from the National Institute of General Medical Studies (NIGMS), to study biology and mathematics at Hunter College. "I knew when I was leaving high school that I wanted to do something with a larger impact on the world," Jarvis explained in a 2002 interview with the National Science Foundation (NSF), "and science provided the creativity I had learned through my arts training and also the rigor and discipline."

Became Interested in Neuroscience

Jarvis entered Hunter College in 1983 and began working in the laboratory under molecular biologist Rifka Rudner. Jarvis was an extremely driven and enthusiastic student and coauthored numerous papers as an undergraduate, winning an award for Excellence in Biomedical Research from the National Institutes of Health in 1986. "You had to kick him out of the lab so he'd go home and sleep," Rudner recalled to Kirsten Weir in the Scientist magazine in 2007. In addition to his studies, Jarvis found time for his personal life: He continued dancing with various organizations and met his future wife, Miriam Rivas, who eventually joined his research team.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in biology and mathematics from Hunter, Jarvis received a grant from NIGMS to continue his studies at Rockefeller University and chose a dual focus in animal behavior and molecular neurobiology. "I wanted to study either the origins of the universe or how the brain works," Jarvis later recalled in his bio statement at Duke University. "I chose the latter. My decisions were simply based upon fascinations."

Jarvis found a mentor in renowned zoologist Fernando Nottebohm, whose work focused on neuron growth in avian brains. Ironically, Nottebohm remembered Jarvis in a 2006 interview with Jerry Adler in the Smithsonian magazine as "the most disorganized and chaotic member of my laboratory." While Jarvis had been a star pupil at Hunter, he now found himself struggling among the elite in biological research, partially due to his frenetic personal life. "I was helping to support six people and doing my studies: my great-grandmother, who was living with us; my wife, Miriam, who was herself a postdoc; her son; our two children," Jarvis recalled to Dreifus in the New York Times. "It was tough. You don't think about it when you are in it. But years later, I realized how very tired I was, worn."

At a Glance …

Born Erich David Jarvis on May 6, 1965, in Harlem, NY; son of James Reginald Jarvis and Sasha Valeria McCall; married Dr. Miriam Rivas; children: Electra, Syrus. Education: Hunter College, BA, biology and mathematics, 1988; Rockefeller University, PhD, molecular neurobiology and animal behavior, 1995, and postdoctoral work, until 1998.

Career: Rockefeller University, assistant professor and adjunct assistant professor, 1998-2002; Duke University Medical Center, Department of Neurobiology, assistant professor, 1998-2005, associate professor 2005—.

Selected memberships: International Society for Neuroethology; Society for Neuroscience; J. B. Johnston Neuroscience Organization; Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans; Duke University President's Council on Black Affairs, council member, 1999-2002; Black Collective at Duke University, founding member, 2001-05.

Selected awards: First Place Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research, National Institutes of Health, Minority Biomedical Research Support, 1986; various fellowships and grants, 1986-95; George H. Hitching' New Investigator Award, North Carolina Triangle Foundation, 2000; Esther and Joseph Klingenstein Foundation Award, 2000; Whitehall Foundation Award in Neuroscience, 2000; Alan T. Waterman Award, National Science Foundation, 2002; Director's Pioneer Award, National Institutes of Health, 2005; listed among the "Annual Brilliant 10," Popular Science magazine, 2006.

Addresses: Office—Duke University Medical Center, Department of Neurobiology, Box 3209, Durham, NC 27710.

Though Jarvis had initially attempted to maintain involvement in dance, performing with a small dance company called Ballet Afrique, he was forced to give up his extracurricular activities to concentrate on his work. Nottebohm was surprised and pleased by Jarvis's transformation. "Erich was very insecure," Nottebohm told Adler in the Smithsonian. "He told me he thought he was being ‘dissed.’ I didn't even know what the word meant. I told him, you're right, they're discriminating against you, because you're a lousy scientist. And I think that really struck him. He became not only the most hard-working member of the lab, but he started doing things that were creative and well thought through."

Jarvis completed his Ph.D. in 1995 and remained at Rockefeller for three years of postdoctoral research, taking an associate professor position with the university in 1998. He soon accepted an offer to transfer to Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, where he became an assistant professor of neurobiology. Jarvis described Duke, as quoted by Dreifus, as having "the best facilities and the least politics," which allowed him to concentrate on his research. "This place has an atmosphere that's a researcher's dream."

Worked on Bird Song

Through the Jarvis Laboratory at Duke University Medical Center, Jarvis and a team of postdocs, doctoral students, undergraduate students, and technicians worked to create a unique, multidisciplinary research program that combined molecular biology, behavioral field studies, electrophysiological measurements, and anatomical studies. Jarvis concentrated on the phenomenon of "vocal learning," wherein an animal learns to differentiate and reproduce vocalizations it encounters in its environment.

Vocal learning is only present in a few animal groups, including birds, cetaceans (aquatic mammals), bats, elephants, and humans. Only three orders of birds—hummingbirds, parrots, and songbirds—have been found to use vocal learning. Song learning naturally is most prominent among the songbird group, where the songs of male birds are closely linked to mating success. "The more variable syntax you produce, the more likely a mate will choose you," Jarvis explained to Adler in the Smithsonian. "They call them sexy songs."

Jarvis hypothesizes that the mental architecture responsible for the ability to learn new vocalizations is a basic component of the vertebrate brain but that not all groups develop vocal learning due to divergent evolutionary pressures. Jarvis proposes that variable vocalizations can alert predators, and animals with variable songs might therefore be more vulnerable to predation. This is the reason, Jarvis believes, that most animals with variable vocal repertoires—birds and bats, which can fly—are naturally equipped with the ability to escape predation. While predation is the downside of having expanded vocal repertoires, sexual selection favors vocal diversity, because it is tied to success in acquiring mates. Jarvis believes that the evolution of vocal learning in humans may have occurred in much the same way as birds, driven by mating success.

While researchers investigating human linguistic capabilities have been searching for a genetic component to explain humans' unique abilities, Jarvis proposed that the key might lie in a neural network similar to those found in birds and other animals. In his work Jarvis has asserted that vocal learning is the "behavioral substrate" for spoken human language. A link between human and bird brains potentially means that birds could be used as a model to study a variety of diseases that affect human vocal capability, like Parkinson's disease, or to learn how to restore speech in stroke victims. The human health implications of Jarvis's research won him the Director's Pioneer Award—a $2.5 million grant—from the National Institutes of Health.

While conducting his research, Jarvis found that the existing terminology used to describe the structures of birds' brains implied that the brain structures were primitive in design. This outdated terminological convention created prejudice against bird capabilities. "We had students who didn't want to study the bird brain because it's labeled with primitive terms," Jarvis said in a 2005 interview with Robert Krulwich for PBS, adding, "We had a general public that wasn't understanding why a bird brain is worth studying." Though Jarvis felt changing the terminology was a worthy goal, he encountered significant resistance from the biological community, and the experience taught him a lesson in the difficulty of challenging accepted customs. As he told Krulwich, "When you get biologists in a room who are really passionate about their beliefs and their work and who have different views you have trouble."

Jarvis has earned numerous accolades for his pioneering work, among them the Alan T. Waterman Award from the NSF, one of the highest honors bestowed for biomedical research. "Erich Jarvis is truly a gem," said NSF Director Rita Colwell in a 2002 press release. "He is the epitome of the modern scientist, crossing between disciplines and ideas, and blending his enormous sense of creativity learned at a very young age and applying it to get the very most from scientific experimentation."

Worked as a "Scientific Artist"

In interviews Jarvis has often expressed a belief that his work as a scientist is similar to his first love, dance performance. "Both art and science are creative endeavors," he told Dreifus in the New York Times. "Developing a technique for an experiment is a lot like trying to develop some choreography for a dance." Jarvis also relates science and dance in that they require constant practice and refinement. "A lot of science students," Jarvis said to Dreifus, "don't understand the discipline part. They don't know that 9-to-5 labor laws don't work in science.… I tell my students that when you're working with nature, you have to figure out nature, and it works for 24 hours." Since he first decided to favor science over dance, the link between the two disciplines has been apparent to Jarvis, and he has called himself a "scientific artist."

Jarvis credits his unique personal background with driving his professional success and shaping his career environment. At Duke Jarvis became involved in African-American issues, serving as a council member of the President's Council on Black Affairs from 1999 to 2002, as well as being involved with other African-American campus organizations. Furthermore, Jarvis's lab is a mélange of diverse backgrounds with African-American students and international students that have represented Brazil, China, Africa, Japan, Puerto Rico, and Slovakia. "I haven't made efforts to purposely create a diverse lab, but it's happened that way," Jarvis explained to Weir in the Scientist. "Sometimes the science you do is based on your culture and experience." His success is still tied, in his mind, to his father's influence; as he recalled to People magazine in 2002, his father once told him "to try to go for something very imaginative and profound—and to have your scientific thinking be connected to your natural environment."

Selected works


"Learned Birdsong and the Neurobiology of Human Language," Annals New York Academy of Science, Vol. 1016, 2004, pp. 749-77.

"Selection For and Against Vocal Learning in Birds and Mammals," Ornithological Science, Vol. 5, 2006, pp. 5-14.

(With Adriana R. J. Ferreira, Tom V. Smulders, Koichi Sameshima, and Claudio V. Mello) "Vocalizations and Associated Behaviors of the Sombre Hummingbird (aphantochroa cirrhochloris) and the Rufous-Breasted Hermit (glaucis hirsutus)," Auk, Vol. 123, 2006, pp. 1129-48.

"Neural Systems for Vocal Learning in Birds and Humans: A Synopsis," Journal of Ornithology,, December 2007, pp. 35-44.

(With Erina Hara, Lubica Kubikova, and Neal A. Hessler) "Role of Midbrain Dopaminergic System in Modulation of Vocal Brain Activation by Social Context," European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 25, 2007, pp. 3406-16.

Has contributed numerous other articles to academic and scholarly journals.


Has contributed chapters to books, including In Nature's Music: The Science of BirdSong, edited by Peter R. Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn, 2004; and Evolution of Nervous Systems, edited by Jon H. Kaas, 2006.



Guardian (London), February 17, 2003; February 1, 2005.

Natural History, October 2000.

New York Times, May 27, 1989; January 7, 2003.

People, July 8, 2002.

Scientist ("Diversity" supplement), 2006.

Smithsonian, November 2006.


"Erich Jarvis" (faculty profile), Duke University: The Graduate School, http://www.gradschool.duke.edu/our_faculty/jarvis_erich.html (accessed February 21, 2008).

"From Arts to Neurobiology: Versatile Duke Scientist Chosen for NSF Waterman Award," (press release), National Science Foundation: Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, April 29, 2002, http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0231.htm (accessed February 21, 2008).

"Neurobiology of Vocal Communication," Laboratory of Erich D. Jarvis, Ph.D., Duke University: Neurobiology, http://www.neuro.duke.edu/faculty/jarvis/ (accessed February 21, 2008).

"Profile: Erich Jarvis," NOVA Science Now, PBS, October 2005, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3214/03.html (accessed February 21, 2008).

—Micah L. Issitt

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