Erich Jarvis, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator by HHMI. He is one of 42 men and 14 women chosen this year in a highly selective national competition that occurs about every three years. "These 56 scientists will bring new and innovative ways of thinking about biology to the HHMI community," said Thomas R. Cech, president of HHMI. "They are poised to advance scientific knowledge dramatically in the coming years, and we are committed to providing them with the freedom and flexibility to do so." Dean Nancy Andrews of the Duke School of Medicine said of Jarvis'achievement: "His ability to design ways to study the mystery of learning through birdsong, through molecular, neural, and behavioral systems simultaneously, deserves this high level of recognition. We look forward to the Jarvis laboratory's future findings about precisely how our brains are able to learn." Jarvis, 43, is one of seven Duke University scientists who are now HHMI investigators, with their research supported by the institute. In 2005, another faculty member in neurobiology, Mike Ehlers, M.D., Ph.D., was named an HHMI investigator.
Once selected, the investigators continue to be based at their host institutions, but become HHMI employees and derive their salaries and benefits from the Institute. Investigators retain their faculty positions and continue to participate in teaching and other professional activities at their university or institute. HHMI provides long-term, flexible funding so the scientists can follow their ideas through to fruition even if that process takes many years.
Erich Jarvis had previously been nominated but not named. This year, he used scientific observation to allow himself cautious optimism. "My lab manager handed me an express mail envelope with the news,"Jarvis said. "I tried to prepare myself again for bad news, but I was hopeful. Last time, I had received the news in a standard mail envelope. Winning this year made me especially happy." Jarvis is being honored as an innovator in neuroscience, specifically for his comparative studies using songbirds, other bird and mammal species, and humans to get at the mystery of how language is learned. "I have come to the conclusion that the brain pathways involved in the singing of songbirds have functional similarities to the pathways involved with speech in humans," Jarvis said. His approach to research has defied convention. "I thought that in this brain pathway for singing in birds, that the first thing we would find are key mechanisms of learned behavior at the molecular level for genes that control the behavior," he said. "What we instead found is how the behavior regulates the genes themselves." Jarvis now plans to test two theories about what the genes do. His lab will try to learn whether the genes simply maintain the cell structure and connectivity of the neurons in the brain, so later when the bird produces a learned song or we humans speak, the circuit remains intact. Alternately, the lab will try to learn whether the genes are being used to modify connections in the brain so that we can learn, through repetition, how to sing better or speak better. Creative endeavors have appealed to Jarvis his whole life. He was invited to audition for the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Theater when he was graduating from the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. He ultimately decided that his contributions through science might be more rewarding.
He went on to earn a B.A. in biology and mathematics from the City University of New York, Hunter College, and his Ph.D. in neurobiology and animal behavior from the Rockefeller University. He is the recipient of one of the highest awards given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, and one of the highest given by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the NSF Alan T. Waterman Award. He is also a recipient of a David and Lucile Packard Foundation Award, a Whitehall Foundation Award in Neuroscience, and a Human Frontiers in Science Young Investigator Award. HHMI seeks out highly creative investigators at distinguished universities, research institutes and medical schools across the U.S. that span the full range of leading-edge biological and biomedical research. The HHMI investigator program is the Institute's flagship program. These scientists are widely recognized for their creativity and productivity: 124 are members of the National Academy of Sciences and 12 have been honored with the Nobel Prize.