Erich Jarvis is an unconventional, award-winning scientist whose career demonstrates the power of bringing open-mindedness into the lab. Days before graduating from the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, Jarvis was invited to audition for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a renowned African American modern dance company. Instead, he chose science over dance.
As a neurobiologist, now at Duke University, Jarvis has had a productive career studying molecular pathways in the brains of songbirds—his chosen window into the larger issues of how the brain controls complex behavior. Along the way, he has proposed bold theories about the evolution of vocal production and learning in birds and how it relates to the origins of human language.
Against considerable resistance, Jarvis successfully lobbied for and helped organize a series of scientific meetings in which researchers made major revisions in the terminology used to describe avian brain organization relative to other vertebrates because he believed the old naming system was outdated and impeding progress in the field.
Jarvis’s lab is now trying to identify the evolutionary factors that permitted birds and humans to learn a variety of vocalizations.
After graduation from Hunter College in New York City with a bachelor’s degree—and six papers on bacterial molecular genetics—Jarvis did graduate and postdoctoral work in the Rockefeller University lab of Fernando Nottebohm, who pioneered research on the neurobiology of song-learning in birds as a model for understanding neural plasticity in the adult brain.
Jarvis has been recognized as a young pioneer in his field, and his research and study of songbird neurology has won him many awards. In 2002, the National Science Foundation awarded Jarvis its highest honor for a young researcher, the Alan T. Waterman Award. In 2005, he was awarded the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award. In 2008 Dr. Jarvis was selected to the prestigious position of Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Jarvis has served as the director of the Neuroscience Scholars Program for The Society of Neuroscience, a member of Duke University’s Council on Black Affairs and a founding member of the Black Collective at Duke. Jarvis and his wife, Miriam Rivas, live in Durham, North Carolina and have two children.