Following the birdsong of science

Erich Jarvis

Credit: Duke University

Neurobiologist Erich Jarvis has spent the last 25 years studying the molecular mechanisms underlying the capacity for spoken language, one of the crucial traits that differentiates humans from other animals. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the Duke University professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator recently made news for co-leading the Avian Phylogenomics Project and co-authoring a 12 December Science paper presenting the most well resolved bird family tree ever assembled. In fact, he was a co-author on seven of the eight bird-genome papers published in that special issue

While at first glance language and bird evolution may appear unrelated, three groups of birds—parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds—are among the few animals capable of imitating sounds they hear, a trait called vocal learning that provides the foundation for language. (The only other animals known to be capable of vocal learning are humans, elephants, a few marine mammals including whales and dolphins, and bats.) One way to identify genes involved in vocal learning is to compare the genomes of vocal-learning birds with their nonvocal-learning evolutionary cousins. But there was a problem: Prior to the project, only three avian genomes had been sequenced, and the family tree was not fully resolved. “I needed the genomes and an accurate phylogenetic tree to do the kind of analysis we want to do,” Jarvis says.  “I help other people achieve their goals, and by helping them they can help me achieve my goals.”

“I try to accept any kind of tool or any type of technology that I need to use to answer my questions.” —Erich Jarvis

Family values

Jarvis’s collaborative spirit appears to come at least in part from his upbringing in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and the Bronx borough during the U.S. civil rights movement. A child of mixed ancestry, with African, Native American, and European blood, he was immersed in the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., to “love everybody, accept everybody,” and Malcolm X, to succeed “by any means necessary,” Jarvis says. “I find that I actually use these philosophies to guide my science. … I try to accept any kind of tool or any type of technology that I need to use to answer my questions.” His involvement in the Avian Phylogenomics Project—which, apart from appearing at first unrelated to his research area, also requires skills and analysis outside his expertise—is an illustration of this ethos in action.

Jarvis’s openness to new approaches helped create the project in the first place. Before the consortium came together, he had participated in sequencing the genomes of two vocal learners, a songbird and a parrot, but he knew he couldn’t do all of the additional sequencing and analysis work that would be required to identify genes related to vocal learning—not by himself, at least—so he teamed up with Genome 10K, a project aiming to collect genomes for 10,000 vertebrate species. While Jarvis and Genome 10K were deciding which avian genomes to sequence, with Jarvis making sure the list included vocal learners and species believed to be their close relatives, they learned about another collaboration in the works led by Guojie Zhang of Chinese sequencing giant BGI and University of Copenhagen evolutionary biologist Tom Gilbert. The Zhang-Gilbert collaboration aimed to resolve uncertainties in the avian phylogenetic tree by sequencing a variety of species. The two groups came together, and the Avian Phylogenomics Project was born. Word spread and additional researchers contacted the team to get involved. “We didn’t say no to anybody unless they didn’t want to share their data or genomes with consortium members,” Jarvis says. “It required an open collaboration policy.”

“Some people say competition leads to greater advances, but I’ve found that coordinating, and forming collaborations and cooperating, actually works just as well, if not better,” he continues. “This goal that I have is not something I feel I can accomplish with just me or a few people.”

For the love of science

While his research goals have remained consistent over the course of his career, Jarvis considered following a different path. As a teen, he appeared to be headed toward a career as a professional dancer, attending New York City’s High School of Performing Arts (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), famous as the setting for the 1980 movie Fame, and earning a request to audition with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a prestigious modern dance company, before deciding to go to college to study science. It was an overnight decision, he says. “My mother always taught me to do something that has a positive impact on the planet, and I felt I could do that better as a scientist than as a dancer.”

His mother, Valeria, also taught him the importance of following one’s passion and that “whatever you do in life, just do it to the best of your ability”—lessons that served him well as he encountered some challenges pursuing his scientific goals. In high school, he says, “I was a decent student but I wasn’t the best. My counselors told me, ‘you’re not going to make it as a scientist; you can’t do this.’ They were discouraging me, but I just went for it anyway.”

Although Jarvis’s transition to science was sudden, it didn’t come totally out of the blue. As a kid, he loved magic tricks, earning pocket money by performing shows with his cousin, Sean, for the neighborhood kids and at Washington Square Park and Union Square in New York City. These early magical exploits, he says, were the germ of his scientific career. “I was just curious about how things worked.” Another factor: Jarvis’s father, James, had been interested in being a scientist before he dropped out of college. “This was a dream he didn’t realize, and I thought maybe I could do something about it.”

It was when Jarvis started working in a molecular biology lab in college that he “really fell in love with doing science in the laboratory.” His passion has been a crucial driving force. “Getting where I am now required a lot of hard work, and I don’t wish this hard work on anybody unless they really love it,” he says. If he could change anything about his career, he says, one of his few wishes would be to “fall in love with my work even sooner.”

This drive to follow his passion has presented some challenges in seeking funding through traditional channels; some of his proposals have been rejected for being “too ambitious,” he says. One solution, he has learned, is “to take what I consider my biggest, most interesting projects and break them down into pieces that are doable.” It also doesn’t hurt that he was named an HHMI investigator in 2008; that consistent, generous funding allows him more freedom and encourages risky, ambitious projects. “To me that’s more exciting. Even if I fail, at least I’m excited about what I’m trying to do.”

Like many others, he worries that the current funding environment discourages bold research, to the detriment of scientific discovery. He is concerned that too many people say to themselves, “ ‘Let me do this safe side project, and I’ll save my most interesting project for later on,’ and then that side project becomes a big project and takes up a lot of your energy, but it doesn’t make as big an advance, and it’s not what you were most interested in.”


In his quest to pursue his passion, Jarvis’s race did not go unnoticed. His undergraduate research at Hunter College produced six papers, and “a lot of people were surprised that a person of color could do this,” he says. “I remember people telling me that directly; they weren’t shy about it.” Such sentiments followed him to graduate school at Rockefeller University, where others implied that he wasn’t as good as the rest of the students and was only there because of a quota. “I remember internalizing this feeling, that I’m not as good as others here and that I don’t belong here.”

As he proved himself to be a capable researcher, the attitude changed, but his background remained important. When it came time to apply for faculty jobs, he says, “I felt like I suddenly became a commodity because of the successes I had, like I was being sought after almost like a basketball player.” Even now, he faces challenges because of his minority status, he says. “Anything that has to do with any kind of diversity issue, I’m called upon because I’m an underrepresented minority,” which presents a problem because it means he is essentially “expected to hold two jobs. One is to be the best scientist I can be, like anybody else, and the other is to cure society’s disease. … I had to learn how to say no to a lot of things in order for it to not take up my time and sink my science career.”

It’s not that he thinks the issue is unimportant or solved. On the contrary; he thinks continued efforts are essential. He says he could not have succeeded as a scientist without special programs and awards for minority researchers, “no matter how much talent I had.”

He hopes more researchers from underrepresented-minority backgrounds pursue faculty positions in the basic sciences instead of leaving academia, so they can “lead by example.” More generally, he argues that a crucial step toward resolving the imbalance of underrepresented minorities in research is increasing the visibility of science as a viable career option. “In my old neighborhoods, people haven’t heard the word Ph.D. that much. … They say, ‘What’s a Ph.D.?’ ” That, Jarvis believes, is a question that scientists must work to answer.

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