January 7, 2003
A Biologist Explores the Minds of Birds That Learn to Sing
URHAM, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.