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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 02-31- April 29, 2002

Media contact:

 Bill Noxon

 (703) 292-8070

Program contact:

 Susan Fannoney

 (703) 292-8096

From Arts to Neurobiology - Versatile Duke Scientist Chosen for NSF Waterman Award

The National Science Foundation has given its highest honor for a young researcher to a man of many dimensions.

Erich Jarvis is a performing artist turned scientist. He overcame economic disadvantage as a child growing up in New York City's Harlem to become a top young researcher at Duke University -- one of only 52 African American men out of more than 4,300 biologists who received Ph.Ds. in 1995. Despite his parents' divorce and his father's intermittent homelessness, Jarvis claimed from his parents and other family members their best qualities - education, creativity, drive, sensitivity and compassion - and turned it to his own advantage as he developed into one of the nation's most promising young scientific minds.

Today named to receive the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Alan T. Waterman Award, NSF's highest honor for a young scientist or engineer, Jarvis was chosen for his individual achievements and leadership in studying the brain system of vocal learning birds.

Jarvis will receive the Waterman Award on May 7 in Washington, D.C.. He is the 27th recipient of the award since it was created in 1975 by Congress to commemorate NSF's 25th anniversary. The award is named after NSF's first director. As part of the Waterman honor, Jarvis will receive a $500,000 grant to continue his research.

"Erich Jarvis is truly a gem," said NSF Director Rita Colwell. "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."

Whether garnering cheers at his 1983 high school graduation dance performance (at the New York High School for the Performing Arts) for doing Soviet-style lifts in a War and Discord pas de deux, or engendering the more sedate affirmations from colleagues for his studies of vocal learning in songbirds, Jarvis has extraordinary curiosity on multiple levels, a quality that drives his research.

At Duke, while conducting his groundbreaking research into how birds may have similar brain structures to generate song that humans use in learned vocalizations, Jarvis discovered "how little scientists know about the language-fostering structures in our own brains," he said in an article for Duke University Magazine. His curiosity, he said, was tempered by ethical constraints preventing scientists from rigorously studying brain functions of humans as rigorously as those of animals. So now he is taking his interest in birds a step further, investigating, through an NSF grant, why so few birds and other animals have vocal learning capabilities, and what brain structures they have. He is also researching the basal ganglia pathway loop in songbirds' learned vocal communication through a National Institute of Mental Health grant. Diseases of the basal ganglia in humans that are known include Parkinson's, depression, chronic anxiety and some speech pathologies.

Jarvis' interest has even extended into cosmology, and he speculates about evolution on other planets, and the potential for finding the same "physical constants" on other planets as we have on Earth.

Where does Jarvis get his inspiration?

"I combined the factors of my mother instilling in me to do something for the greater good of mankind, and my father (who had musical talent) adding his desire to gain knowledge, into one decision to become a scientist," Jarvis said in a National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) profile. NIGMS funded Jarvis' undergraduate and graduate studies at New York City's Hunter College and Rockefeller University. At Rockefeller, he focused his Ph.D. work on molecular neurobiology and animal behavior.

"I knew when I was leaving high school that I wanted to do something with a larger impact on the world, and science provided the creativity I had learned through my arts training and also the rigor and discipline," explained Jarvis.

"The studies of songbirds were kind of a natural outgrowth, I guess. They definitely interested me because they have more complicated learning systems. Birds that imitate behaviors I felt would be good to study brain function," he said.

During his advanced scientific training, Jarvis once explained that like a dancer, he would "choreograph things in order to invent experiments" and "be disciplined to practice over and over again until the experiment was done right."

Jarvis is doing a lot right.




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