Erich Jarvis Receives NIH Pioneer Award

His work could make "truly extraordinary contributions to many fields of medical research."

Erich Jarvis' NIH Pioneer Award will enable innovative research that could pave the way for repairing vocalization disorders in humans.

Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Erich Jarvis has been selected as a recipient of a 2005 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director's Pioneer Award. The award -- which provides an unrestricted grant of $500,000 per year for five years -- was established "to encourage highly innovative approaches to biomedical research that have the potential to lead to significant advances in human health," according to the institute.

Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology, was among 13 researchers named to receive the awards, which were announced on September 29, 2005, by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.

"The scientists we recognize with Pioneer Awards have far-ranging ideas that hold the potential to make truly extraordinary contributions to many fields of medical research," Zerhouni said. "The recipients reflect the talent and diversity of the impressive group of scientists who competed for the award." Zerhouni said.

This is the second year that a Duke Medical Center researcher has won this award since its inception in 2004. Last year's Duke awardee was biochemist Homme Hellinga.

Jarvis's research has concentrated on the neurobiology of vocal communication, using songbirds as a model. His studies have revealed new insights into the genetics and molecular biology of learned vocal communication.

In 1997, he and his former advisor Fernando Nottebohm discovered that the act of producing learned vocalizations in songbirds activates increased expression of genes involved in brain plasticity. In 1998, he and his colleagues found dramatic differences in this activation depending on the social context in which the animals communicate. In studies from 2000 to 2004, they found that similar gene activation occurs in other vocal learning species, and they used these findings to gain insight into the evolution of brain pathways for vocal learning, including in humans.

In 2004, Jarvis and his colleagues also discovered that a nearly identical version of a gene -- FoxP2 -- to one whose mutation produces an inherited language deficit in humans, is a key component of the song-learning machinery in birds. And in 2005, they found that night-migratory songbirds possess a specialized night-vision brain area. This structure could enable the birds to navigate by the stars and even to visually detect the earth's magnetic field.

Jarvis has also led an international consortium of neuroscientists that in 2004 proposed a drastic renaming of the structures of the bird brain to correctly portray birds as more comparable to mammals in their cognitive ability.

He plans to use his Pioneer Award to test a hypothesis about the genetic machinery underlying vocal learning that could pave the way for repairing vocalization disorders in humans.

Jarvis was originally a dancer and went to the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. He received a B.A. in biology and mathematics from Hunter College in 1988, where he published six papers on bacterial molecular genetics with his undergraduate advisor Rivka Rudner. He received his Ph.D. from The Rockefeller University in 1995, working on songbirds with Nottebohm. His education and research training were funded by the MARC and MBRS programs of the National Institutes of Health, which supports underrepresented and disadvantaged students that want to pursue careers in the sciences. He came to Duke in 1998. In 2002, the National Science Foundation gave him its highest honor for a young researcher - the Alan T. Waterman Award.