Dr. Erich Jarvis (1965 - ), grew up in Harlem, New York . His mother and father were poor and for a while Erich and his family lived on welfare. Although life was difficult Erich worked hard in school. His life was even more difficult because his father abused drugs and was later murdered. His mother had been the sole provider for the family for many years, but received help from extended family. Although life was hard, she always stressed the importance of an education and pushed him to work hard in school. Erich's mother always told him that with hard work, he could make a difference in the world and become whatever he wanted to be. With her love and inspiration, Erich excelled and developed a love for learning. Although he did not grow up in a fine house with expensive clothes and lots of toys, he had an abundance of ambition, support, and love from his family. Erich always knew he could and would succeed with a good education.
Erich attended the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City because he was creative, a great dancer, and enjoyed dance. He was such a good student that when he graduated he was invited to try out for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Although he enjoyed dance, he liked science even more.
Erich decided to attend the Hunter College, part of the City University of New York to study biology and mathematics. He went on to receive a doctorate in neurobiology and animal behavior from The Rockefeller University. He graduated in1995 and of the more than 4,300 students who received a doctorate in biology, he was one of only 52 African-American men. He was fascinated not only with birds and bird sounds, but the relationship between bird brains and how they learn their songs. Lab animals such as monkeys, rats, and mice are the animals of choice in the field of science for experimentation because they are more similar to humans, however Erich was fascinated with the vocal learning behavior of some birds, the brain pathways that control it, and how it can help inform us about brain pathways for language in humans. Erich and other scientists are now seeing similarities between human brains and bird brains. One similarity is the ability of a select group of birds, parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds, to reproduce sounds. Erich and other scientists have discovered the routes used in the brain for vocal learning by listening to parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds sing and dissecting the brains of these birds. These birds are different, but in many ways their brains' have similar functions. Erich believes that human brains have gradually developed in similar ways to the brains of these birds and if he is correct, his scientific work may one day lead to discoveries that can help repair the brain and restore speech in people who have survived damage to the region of the brain that controls speech.
Dr. Jarvis is presently an award-winning professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and has taught there since 1998. In 2002, the National Science Foundation awarded him their highest award for a scientist under the age of 35, the Waterman Award. In 2006, Popular Science named him as one of their Brilliant 10, which recognized him as one of the top scientist of 2006 younger than 45. The National Institutes of Health awarded him the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, one of the highest given by the NIH.
As the recipient of numerous awards, one of his greatest accomplishments was being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute where he will be free to explore his ideas and beliefs about the brain so we can learn, through repetition, how to be a better speaker or singer. The award will fund approximately $1 million a year into his research on songbirds for the next five years.
Dr. Jarvis wants us all to realize that as Booker T. Washington once wrote, “…success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” This scientist is no "bird brain!” He is the successful Dr. Erich Jarvis, neurobiologist!