I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with my P.I., Dr. Erich Jarvis, for an interview that gave me several valuable insights into his personal journey as a scientist as well as the life of a researcher in general. Before becoming a scientist, Dr. Jarvis was planning on becoming a dancer. What made him decide to study science was his mother’s advice – “she told me to do something that has a positive impact on society”, he recalls. When he decided on being a scientist, he was attending Hunter College majoring in both Biology and Mathematics. Faced with the choice of going to medical school or graduate school, he stated that he “was more excited by making discoveries than using discoveries that others made to help cure people”. At this point, he knew he wanted to study either the origins of universe or how brain works. He chose the brain because it felt closer to earth and of his background in dance. In graduate school, he narrowed his interests to learning and memory, particularly vocal learning in songbirds. This topic intrigued him because it has a link to language, the ability to speak and communicate abstract ideas. Interestingly enough, Dr. Jarvis found that being an artist as a dancer was quite similar to being a scientist – “both require discipline, self drive, and creativity.” In fact, his lab recently made discoveries that brain pathways that control vocal learning maybe embedded within brain pathways that control dance. Evidently, having diversity of interest is useful because it helps develop transferable skills and knowledge.
One piece of advice he gave me regarding career development is that seeking out mentorship is essential. Dr. Jarvis still seeks mentorship from his undergraduate research advisor at Hunter College, Rivka Rudner, with whom he worked for four years. Under her guidance, he coauthored six papers from his undergraduate research and solidified his decision to become a scientist. Although he now realizes the importance of seeking mentorship, at the time, Dr. Jarvis did not purposely look for a mentor. Rather, he asked questions to learn from other’s successes as well as their mistakes. Even now, Dr. Jarvis seeks out mentorship from his department chairmen for opinions and advice. With this philosophy in mind, he also insisted the importance of using discretion when considering other’s input and making some decisions for yourself.
Another essential factor of being a scientist is learning how to deal with failure. Dr. Jarvis affirmed that failure is an inevitable part of research, whether it is an experiment that isn’t working, a grant being denied, or getting papers reviewed and declined. His advice regarding failure was to “have some thick skin, and be flexible.” He stressed that the right amount of optimism can overcome failure, and the point of failure is “to change your way of doing things to decreases the probability of failure in the future.”
As a final remark, Dr. Jarvis discussed the issue of what he calls a “social disease”, that leads to the underpresentation of minorities in the sciences. Dr. Jarvis suggested that the best remedy to help resolve the current problem is to lead by example to dispel any evidence that causes others to look down on each other because of gender or race.