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January 7, 2003

A Biologist Explores the Minds of Birds That Learn to Sing


DURHAM, N.C. At Duke University here, Dr. Erich D. Jarvis, 37, is recognized for his groundbreaking research on the brain systems of birds. This year, he won the Alan T. Waterman Award, the National Science Foundation's $500,000 prize for young researchers.

Dr. Jarvis's own life story is also widely known. He grew up in Harlem in a family riven by poverty and divorce. His father, a musician and amateur scientist, eventually succumbed to drugs, mental illness and homelessness and was killed in 1989.

Still, Erich Jarvis graduated from Hunter College and went on to the Rockefeller University, where he earned his doctorate in 1995.

At Duke, he said in a recent interview, he found a place with "the best facilities and the least politics" in an effort to do his research unimpeded. "This place has an atmosphere that's a researcher's dream."

Q. You study the brain pathways of hummingbirds, songbirds and parrots three very different types of birds that are song learners, as opposed to innate vocalizers. Why study them?
A. These birds are among the few vocal-learning animal groups. By measuring a certain gene that is activated in their brains when they are producing their learned vocalizations, my colleague Claudio Mello of the Oregon Health and Sciences University and I have established that hummingbirds, parrots and songbirds each, separately, evolved similar brain pathways for the production of learned songs. None of these creatures are closely related to one another. These pathways are not found in more closely related birds that do not learn vocalizations.

Our findings indicate that brain pathways for a complex behavior can evolve in very similar ways, multiple times. There's the possibility that human language brain pathways have also evolved in ways similar to these birds.
Q. What are the human clinical implications of your findings about birds' brains?
A. The clinical implications there could be tremendous. If it turns out to be true that these birds have similar types of brain mechanisms for vocal learning as humans, then we'll have a nice animal model to study diseases of language in humans. We can help humans.
Q. We've heard that you are one of the few biologists to fuse molecular research with observational field work. Is this true?
A. That's correct. I fuse molecular biology with doing experiments, not only in a closed-in laboratory, but in the forest. Doing that makes it possible to map brain areas involved in behavior in the wild, as well as in the laboratory, which may be different.

When I sometimes go into the field, I have a video camera, binoculars and, unfortunately, dissection tools to extract the brain from some of these animals. We let the animals behave in their own ways, we observe them, we catch them, and then we dissect their brain tissue and measure changes of gene expression in their brains that have been activated by the behavior.
Q. So you do dissections in your experiments?
A. Yes. Because to study genes in the brain, you have to dissect the brain. You have to get the tissue.
Q. There are people who ask, "Why do you have to kill your research subjects?" How do you answer?
A. You need to get to the brain. It's just like the study of skin, which my wife, Dr. Miriam Rivas, does. You need specimens. I've actually donated my own skin to my wife's scientific project. To study something without being able to look at it, feel it, touch it, isn't really studying it. You're hypothesizing.
Q. Where did your ambition to be a scientist come from?
A. The ambition part came from my mother, who was a 60's idealist and who always wanted me to do something important and good for humanity. The science came from my father, who loved nature. He was a scientist in the sense that he would pick up a rock or look at an animal or study something by observation. He'd make notes about it or try to figure out how things are interlocked in nature.

I still have his rock collection and some notebooks. He'd tell me wonderful stories about how he saw the planets and the stars. At the other end of the spectrum, he was a chemist. For a while, he worked in a chemical factory in New Jersey where they were trying to develop secret paints to make airplanes invisible when they fly in the sky.

As a child, I saw him more as a friend than a parent. There were times when he was into drugs and when he was abusive. But he also nurtured my intellectual growth. He'd show up in our lives now and then, after long periods of living in caves or in the woods, he would tell us wonderful stories about nature, about the stars.

My mother, after the divorce, totally separated herself from him. She'd call the police whenever he'd come round. And his parents, his whole family, really divorced him, too. As in many minority families where there's not a father present, we got a lot of support from the grandparents. Finding a place to live was always a struggle, and we would sometimes live with them. That's how we survived during difficult periods.

When I was about 18, he'd gotten frostbite on his toes from living outdoors, and my grandfather, with whom I was living then, took him in for a while. During that time, he taught me music and philosophy and helped me with my calculus. I could appreciate some things about him, though not as a father.
Q. There can't be many other Duke assistant professors with anything like your history. Do you ever think about that?
A. Sure. And I know also that I've really worked very, very, very hard to attain the things that I have now. At Rockefeller, where I went to graduate school, I really came to understand how different my life was from the other students there. They had two parents, cars, an easier life. It was another world.

Even by the time I got to Rockefeller, things were still hard. 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. 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.
Q. Before college, you studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts. Is there anything in your dance background that helps you now in your scientific career?
A. Sure. Both art and science are creative endeavors. Developing a technique for an experiment is a lot like trying to develop some choreography for a dance.

The other thing they have in common is that both require discipline. You practice over and over again, until you get it right. A lot of science students, I find, don't understand the discipline part. They don't know that 9-to-5 labor laws don't work in science. I could be arrested for saying this, but it's true. I tell my students that when you're working with nature, you have to figure out nature, and it works for 24 hours.
Q. The future of affirmative action programs at universities is before the Supreme Court. How do you weigh in on the debate?
A. I believe we needed, and we still need, affirmative action programs. They provide an advantage that offsets disadvantages. I wouldn't have been able to get as far as I have without them. I might have been struggling and have never made it through. Though I'm a strong person, without those programs in place, I would have tried, I would have struggled, but I wouldn't have gotten this far. And I'm not even as far along as I want to be.

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