The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Erich Jarvis

Neurobiologist Erich D. Jarvis was born on May 6, 1965, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City to musicians James Jarvis and Sasha Valeria McCall. Growing up in an artistic but poverty-stricken household, Jarvis found an early passion for dance, which led him to the High School of the Performing Arts. He graduated from high school in 1983 and turned down an audition for the African American dance company, Alvin Ailey to attend Hunter College. As an undergraduate, he worked as a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Fellow and researched protein synthesis genes in bacteria. After obtaining his B.A. degree in mathematics and biology in 1988, Jarvis pursued his Ph.D. degree in molecular neurobiology and animal behavior at The Rockefeller University where he researched vocal learning in songbirds. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1995 and stayed at The Rockefeller University to conduct postdoctoral research.

After completing his postdoctoral research, Jarvis joined the faculty of The Rockefeller University as an adjunct assistant professor and also participated in the Science Outreach Program of New York where he taught laboratory skills to inner city high school students. He left Rockefeller in 1998 to become an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Duke University. Jarvis also served as an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. In 2005, he led the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium, a team of twenty-eight neuroscientists, who proposed a new nomenclature for the bird brain to better reflect a bird’s similarities with mammals in cognitive abilities. Jarvis also became a tenured associate professor at Duke in 2005 and in 2008, he was chosen to become an Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has been an invited contributor for several books and has published more than fifty scholarly articles.

Jarvis has been recognized as a young pioneer in his field, and his research and study of songbird neurology has won him many awards including the National Science Foundation Alan T. Waterman Award, the Dominion Award: Strong Men and Women of Excellence: African American Leaders and the National Institute for the Humanities’ Director’s Pioneer Award in 2005. He has served as the director of the Neuroscience Scholars Program for The Society of Neuroscience, a member of Duke University’s Council on Black Affairs and a founding member of the Black Collective at Duke. Jarvis and his wife, Miriam Rivas, live in Durham, North Carolina and have two children.

Erich Jarvis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 20, 2012.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category
Marital Status


Middle Name



Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

Hunter College

The Rockefeller University

Search Occupation Category
First Name


Birth City, State, Country

New York



Favorite Season



National Science Foundation


New York

Favorite Vacation Destination


Favorite Quote

It doesn't matter what you do in life, do it well.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York



Favorite Food

Greens (Collard)

Short Description

Neurobiologist Erich Jarvis (1965 - ) was an expert on song-associative learning in songbirds and in 2005, he led a team which created a new nomenclature for the bird brain.


Hunter College

Rockefeller University Dr. Fernando Nottebohm Laboratory

Rockefeller University

Duke University Medical Center Department of Neurobiology

Duke University Center for Cognitive Neuroscience

Duke University Center for Bioinformatics & Computational Biology

Duke University Medical Center Development Biology Program

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)

Main Sponsor
Main Sponsor URL
Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Erich Jarvis Interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis describes his mother's family history</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis tells about his mother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis talks about life for African Americans in Harlem</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Erich Jarvis talks about his parents' activism in the 1960s</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Erich Jarvis describes his father's history (part 1)</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Erich Jarvis describes his father's history (part 2)</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis talks about his family's African ancestors</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis talks about racial discrimination his ancestors faced</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis talks about ethnic diversity</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis talks about his father</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis tells how his parents met at High School of Performing Arts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Erich Jarvis talks about his father's schizophrenia and drug use</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Erich Jarvis talks about his siblings</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis shares his earliest memories of growing up in the Bronx, Harlem and Queens</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis talks about his parents' separation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis talks about the effects of his parents' separation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis describes his elementary school and his desire to be a magician</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis talks about his move to Hartford, Connecticut</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis talks about his role models</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis discusses his interest in dance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis talks about the cultural and religious attitudes of his family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis talks about his early experience with dance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis talks about his experience at the High School of Performing Arts</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Erich Jarvis talks about his interest in science and his involvement in dance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Erich Jarvis talks about studying science at Hunter College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis talks about his father's life and reunion with his family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis describes his award-winning research on Bacillus subtilis</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis tells how he met his wife, Miriam, at Hunter College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis describes the faculty at Hunter College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis talks about his sickle cell research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Erich Jarvis talks about race and the graduate school application process</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Erich Jarvis explains his research on Zebra Finches and canaries at Rockefeller University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis talks about vocalization in songbirds</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis talks about brain mapping and animal intelligence</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis talks about the genetic similarity between dogs and humans</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis discusses increased intelligence among vocal learning species</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis shares his hypothesis about brain pathways in vocal learning species</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Erich Jarvis talks about current research on speech pathways</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Erich Jarvis talks about parrots and imitation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis talks about how Snowball the cockatiel developed the ability to dance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis talks about the relationship of singing, gesturing, and learning</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis shares his hypothesis about savants and brain connectivity</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis talks about his current research on vocal learning systems</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis talks about his father's death</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Erich Jarvis discusses how his research relates to mental illness</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Erich Jarvis reflects on his career at Duke University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Erich Jarvis talks about his children</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Erich Jarvis talks about his hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Erich Jarvis reflects on his career and his legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Erich Jarvis talks about his wife and their separation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Erich Jarvis comments on diversity at Duke University and the importance of perseverance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Erich Jarvis talks about how he would like to be remembered</a>







Erich Jarvis talks about race and the graduate school application process
Erich Jarvis shares his hypothesis about savants and brain connectivity
Okay. Ah, okay, so in '88' [1988] you entered a Ph.D. program? Ah, now what happened between--wait a minute, let's see. You graduated in '88' [1988], yeah.$$Yes. I stayed at Hunter College [New York, New York] for five years to do a double major and then I actually had enough to practically get a Ph.D. for my undergraduate work. So I published--altogether after I graduated, I finished publishing more, six papers, as an undergraduate student. I think three of them I was first author. So I talked to Rivka Rudner and a few other faculty members about the possibility of getting my Ph.D., staying another two years and getting my Ph.D. early. And a lot of them, some of them liked that idea, but a number of them encouraged me to go elsewhere, to do something that I really want to do beyond studying bacteria. So, I listened to that advice, and what was my passion? My passion was understanding how the brain works, was one of them. And the other possibility was understanding the origin of the universe. It seemed two different things, but I wanted to take on something big--and so, one of those two. So, I started applying to graduate school programs to do one of those two, to have the opportunity to do either or. And that was in what, '87' [1987], '88' [1988]?$$'88' [1988].$$Yeah. And so I applied to all the top schools like MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge Massachusetts], Harvard [Harvard University, Cambridge, Massaachusets], Yale [Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut]and Johns Hopkins [John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland] and so on, and actually got into all of them, except for Stanford [Stanford University, Stanford, California]. I think they're the only ones who didn't take me. And that was quite exciting back then because I realize now--I didn't realize before, but they, a lot of people didn't expect that to happen, because Hunter College wasn't considered an Ivy League school. So, you usually go from MIT to Harvard, or from Harvard to Stanford, you know. But to me, you know, I didn't know that. And it didn't matter to me either. And so by the fact that I had these publications as an undergraduate student--I had more publications than people coming from Harvard, MIT or Stanford. And what I learned later on, by the fact that I was a person of color who did this, it really surprised people a lot. And I think, I know, actually, the combination of my scientific success as an undergraduate student and my color actually even made me more competitive to get into these programs. And I realized that even later on when I was--for my faculty position, something similar happened, and it started to hit me that the color of my skin actually was a big disadvantage for many years. And suddenly, for a moment of time, it became an advantage, because they want this colored person who's good at what they do, and we need him, because it's going to look good for us. And actually it was a sad reality for me. I realized it's going to be a disadvantage, and in some rare cases an advantage, but rarely neutral. And it made me realize also, after all those years of other people--years of other people, that who was the advantage for? You know, what's been happening?$$Okay. So, now how did you decide on Rockefeller University?$$So, yes. Rockefeller [Rockefeller University, New York, New York], I, what was different about them compared to the four schools that I was really down to--it was between Rockefeller, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts], Harvard [Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts] and Yale [Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut]. And I chose Rockefeller because their approach was to let you have freedom to do what you want to do in the lab, and let you explore more. And they had some buzz words in there, that we are looking to generate the leaders of science, not just the regular ordinary scientists.$Oh yeah, right. I was going to ask you about Thomas Bethune and other so-called idiot savants, who were able to master huge amounts of information it seems, on one hand, and then not be able to figure out, you know, how to tie their shoe on the other hand.$$Right, right, yes. So I'm fascinated by these things. And I'm beginning more and more to think that these are genetic differences that somebody like an idiot savant or a person--that's kinesthesia. This is where they see something that they--they see things, but they actually hear it instead of--it's been shown that their auditory cortex is processing the visual signals, and that's how come they see something that they hear.$$Right. I've heard that--I think they did something like that--oh, I read about where a person can see colors when they hear sounds.$$That's right, that's right. So, what I think is happening here is that there are differences in some connectivity of some brain pathways that have become enhanced for, you know, some visual processing, auditory processing, or just even processing in general that then leads to a decrement in some other brain pathway. And from my scientific perspective, at least, all species are forever changing themselves in the next generation to constantly adapt to new environments, to do something better than what the prior generation done before in terms of the genome. And what I think happens in savants-- and is just basic evolution--but not all things that change have all good sides to them, they have bad sides to them. And this is the same thing for genes and behavior.$$And it's for those who, I guess--Thomas Bethune, known as Blind Tom could play concertos and so forth, just after having just listened on a piano, just like he heard them.$$Right, right, right. Yeah, I've heard about that. That's amazing.$$There's a fellow now that can look at the horizon of a cityscape and then go on and draw, and draw every building--$$It's like photographic memory, yeah. I used to not believe that such people exist, but after reading about them more and more, I believe it does exist, which tells us also that our brains have a greater capacity than the average person has now.$$I have to ask you about that old saying that we only use one seventh of our brain.$$Right, yeah, that's right, ten percent of our brain, that's right.$$People always say that. Is there any truth to that?$$That's not true in the, let's say, in the more global sense. We use a lot of our brain from moment to moment to moment. I forget who presented this. Someone presented it--talked the other day where they were recording a thousand neurons from the brain with some type of neuro-activity markers. And based upon that, they did see that somewhere roughly ten percent of the neurons were active at any one particular second in time, okay. So, from one second in time, you know, one; ten percent, another second; another ten percent, another second; and another ten percent. So, but no one knows, no scientist that I know of knows where that old saying comes from, that you only use ten percent of--it's one of these mythical things.$$You hear it in the barbershop.$$that's right, yes, yeah.