August 1, 2002
It was for Erich Jarvis a startling contrast--going from the stillness of the Brazilian rainforest and the peace of his laboratory to the glamour of a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., as the guest of honor. But such was the young scientist's experience in April, when he was named recipient of the National Science Foundation's Alan T. Waterman Award, considered the highest honor for a young scientist or engineer. The award includes $500,000 to support his research.
For someone who spends his time puzzling over how bird brains evolved song-learning, one might imagine the music to his ears of having NSF Director Rita Colwell sing his praises: "Erich Jarvis is truly a gem," she said in the official announcement of the award. "He is the epitome of the modern scientist, crossing between disciplines and ideas, and blending his enormous sense of creativity learned at a very young age and applying it to get the very most from scientific experimentation."
The media attention that followed--including articles in The New York Times and People, and a segment on NOVA--explained how Jarvis is seeking to explain the subtle evolutionary forces that act to drive development of the brain. But the articles also explored the personal forces that had acted on Jarvis to spark his eclectic interests in endeavors as diverse as dance and neurobiology.
In particular, articles cited the influence of his father, James, a talented man who suffered from schizophrenia, and who showed his son the wonders of nature. Wrote People, "Erich Jarvis' father was never like the other dads he knew. While Erich lived with his mom and three siblings in a house in New York, James Jarvis lived at times in one local park or another.
Once, when Erich was eighteen, his father took him to a cave he discovered in upper Manhattan. 'He was so proud,' says Erich. 'I was trying to understand why the hell he wanted to live in caves. Why was he staring up at the stars?'"
"What I really got from him is this eccentric view of being a scientist," Jarvis told People. "How to be a scientist in the most profound sense."
Besides his father's scientific curiosity, Jarvis emphasizes the strength of his family in fostering his success. "Viewed from the outside, certain aspects of our family appear unstable, and this is true," he wrote in a message to the NSF. "My father was very unstable when it came to family relationships. However, one of the keys to my current success so far (which is not near where
I want it to be) beyond, say, what other African Americans have achieved, is that I had and still have a very stable, well-grounded family situation. Of all those in charge of my upbringing, my father was the only unstable one. My mother, both sets of my grandparents, most of my aunts and uncles had a very strong sense of family and protection of the younger members."
Such family strength has served Jarvis well, not only in his striving for scientific excellence, but also in coping with tragedy. His father--as reported in a front-page New York Times article that also cited James' prized collection of rocks and fossils and sheet music of sonatas by Bach and Beethoven--was murdered in a random act of violence in 1989.