The first time I ever heard of Erich Jarvis was some time after I entered the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program, during my second bachelors degree. I still felt very self conscious as a former dancer reinventing myself as a serious scientist. Someone very kind and very thoughtful told me about him. Though I have to admit that I still feel that I will never fit the mold of a scientist sometimes, thanks to that kind person at least I know of at least one very successful scientist who started out as a dancer. And that is why I have chosen to write about him for the Diversity in Science blog carnival.
Erich Jarvis was born into an artistic family in Harlem, NY. Both of his parents were musicians, and he went to the High School of the Performing Arts, majoring in Dance. While in high school, he also trained at the Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Ailey Dance Schools, on scholarship. He was a serious dancer, and had the opportunity to become a professional upon graduation. He chose, instead, to go to college. He double majored in Biology and Math at Hunter College, one of the campuses of the City University of New York. He received an NIH-Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Traineeship and was an NIGMS-Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Fellow. He did extensive research on the molecular biology of protein synthesis genes in bacteria under the supervision of Dr. Rivka Rudner while at Hunter College, resulting in several papers, two of which list him as first author.
After college, Dr. Jarvis went on to graduate school at Rockefeller, where he was again as MARC Fellow, he studied the molecular behavioral mechanisms of song-associative learning in songbirds under the supervision of Dr. Fernando Nottebohm. After a post-doc in the same lab, he joined the faculty of Duke University. He is now an associate professor with tenure (I believe). As a young faculty member, he led an initiative to re-name the parts of the bird brain in a way that better reflects their complexity and moves away from the model of the bird brain as "primitive". His work has shown that behavior, such as singing, causes measurable changes in gene expression in certain parts of the brain, and that these changes are dependent on the social context in which the behavior is performed. He was also a recipient of the Alan T. Waterman Award for young scientists, and is now a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
Although Dr. Jarvis is clearly doing some very interesting and important scientific work, he is an inspiration to me personally because of who he is as a person. He is an African American. He spent his early years training as an artist, and then changed direction fairly late in the game (though not quite as late as I did) and committed himself passionately to science. And he is not apologetic for having other interests. He says in a NOVA scienceNOW Profile that he considers himself a "scientific artist":
Because I don't see performing artists and scientists as being really that different. They might look different, but so do a pianist and a dancer. I would say that it's the process that's very similar. The process of becoming a dancer and the process of becoming a scientist are very similar.
Both require a lot of discipline, a lot of practice, an intense amount of training, and a lot of failure. In both cases, you must keep getting up and trying again. Both are creative. In both art and science you are often trying to do things that have never been done before. As an artist, you're trying to discover new things about yourself, life around you, and the art itself. In science, the goals are the same.
If you want to learn more about Dr. Erich Jarvis, check out the following links:
A CONVERSATION WITH: ERICH JARVIS; A Biologist Explores the Minds of Birds That Learn to Sing (New York Times)
2006 Emerging Scholars of the Year - Neurobiology: Secrets in a Song (Diverse Issues in Higher Education)
Science Hero: Erich Jarvis (My Hero Project)
Duke Faculty Page
Jarvis Lab Website