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Science by any means necessary

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Science  06 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6222, pp. 686
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6222.686

As a child of mixed ancestry growing up 5 decades ago in the Harlem and Bronx neighborhoods of New York City, Erich Jarvis was immersed in the teachings of civil rights leaders. From Martin Luther King Jr., he took the precept to “love everybody, accept everybody.” Malcolm X inspired him to succeed “by any means necessary.” Both principles have served him well in science, says Jarvis, now a prominent neurobiologist. Jarvis is a natural collaborator and also an opportunist. “I try to accept any kind of tool or any type of technology that I need to use to answer my questions,” he says.

These days, the Duke University professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator studies the molecular mechanisms underlying the capacity for spoken language, a uniquely human trait. His work was featured prominently in the 12 December Science special issue. (You can read it at scim.ag/1v9GcNv.) It required an unusual collaboration with researchers studying a seemingly different topic: the evolution of birds.

“My mother always taught me to do something that has a positive impact on the planet.”

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds are among the few animals capable of imitating sounds they hear, a trait called vocal learning. Jarvis wanted to compare the genomes of vocal-learning birds with their nonvocal-learning evolutionary cousins. He first teamed up with Genome 10K, a project aiming to sequence the genomes for 10,000 vertebrate species, and when he heard about another parallel bird-sequencing project, he helped bring everyone together to create a coalition. “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 says.

Jarvis took an indirect route to science. A student at New York City's High School of Performing Arts, the setting for the 1980 movie Fame, he earned an audition with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a prestigious modern dance company. He chose science instead. “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,” he explains. “Science and dance are very similar to me. They both require discipline, creativity, invention, and lots of effort that in the end rewards you with something new.”

His undergraduate research at Hunter College produced six papers. “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.” He encountered similar sentiments in graduate school at Rockefeller University, where some implied he was only there because of a quota, he says. “I remember internalizing this feeling that I'm not as good as others here and that I don't belong here.”

When the time came to apply for faculty jobs, “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.” Yet his minority status continues to present challenges. “Anything that has to do with any kind of diversity issue, I'm called upon because I'm an underrepresented minority,” he says. “I am 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 believes the issue is unimportant or solved. 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 just wants more company—more researchers from underrepresented-minority backgrounds in faculty positions in the basic sciences, where they can “lead by example.” Science needs to be more visible as a career option, he says. “In my old neighborhoods, people haven't heard the word Ph.D. that much. … They say, ‘What's a Ph.D.?’”

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