Einstein/Montefiore Department of Medicine

2015 Sharon Silbiger Lecture Promotes Ethnic Diversity in Science Fields

Erich Jarvis, PhD Sharon Silbiger Memorial Lecture Albert Einstein College of Medicine Bronx NY
Erich Jarvis, PhD

On Monday, September 21, 2015, Dr. Erich Jarvis, Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, delivered the third annual Sharon Silbiger, MD Memorial Lecture entitled “Surviving as an Underrepresented Scientist in a Majority World.”

Dr. Jarvis investigates the neurobiology of learned vocal communication in the animals with this ability (5% of mammals and three groups of songbirds), as a model for the study of how the brain generates, perceives, and learns complex behaviors such as spoken language. His research pecifically seeks to determine the molecular mechanisms that construct, modify, and maintain neural circuits for vocal learning and then engineer brain circuits to repair and enhance those behaviors. Ultimately, he hopes his research might have medical benefits such as helping to restore speech in people who have suffered damage to the region of the brain that controls speech.

Erich Jarvis, PhD Sharon Silbiger Memorial Lecture Albert Einstein College of Medicine Bronx NY
Left to right: Alan Gaynor, Frank Leiber, Howard Londner, Laurie Silbiger, Jonah Gaynor, Erich Jarvis, Brian Rothschild, Julian Rothschild, Ellen Leiber

Born in the Bronx and raised in Harlem, Dr. Jarvis overcame numerous hardships—including his parents’ divorce and his father’s decline into drug addiction, homelessness, and eventual murder—to become an award-winning neurobiologist and tenured professor at Duke University. Along the way, he became an accomplished dancer, attending the High School of Performing Arts in New York City and being invited to audition for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and credited part of his scientific success to this endeavor. “[Dancing and science] both require discipline, creativity, hard work. Neither of these is a nine-to-five job, and you have to accept a lot of failure before you have any success,” he said.

Dr. Jarvis’s journey, which he shared throughout the lecture, was marked with challenges that included misguided and sometimes acrimonious comments from colleagues, academic culture shock, and an overall feeling that he was “less than” due to his African American heritage. “The color of my skin and gender, like for anybody, is either a disadvantage or an advantage. It’s rarely neutral,” he said. “The only way to overcome these feelings of ‘less than’ is to be successful at something.”

Victor Schuster, Erich Jarvis, Sandra Masur, Sharon Silbiger Memorial Lecture Albert Einstein College of Medicine Bronx NY
Left to right: Victor Schuster, Erich Jarvis, and Sandra Masur

Early on in his career, as an undergraduate student at Hunter College with a bachelor's degree and six papers published on bacterial molecular genetics in Rivka Rudner's lab, Dr. Jarvis began to realize that achievement had a way of eliminating feelings of inferiority. This, in addition to encouragement from his mother and grandparents, inspired him to leverage his talent with the opportunities available to him as an underrepresented scientist. He published nine more papers as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University, earned a tenured faculty position at Duke University, and received numerous honors including the Alan T. Waterman Award, the National Science Foundation’s for young investigators who have made a significant discovery/impact in science, the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, and an HHMI Investigator Award. He credited his significant scientific accomplishments to his willingness to take risks, as well as his commitment to working with individuals throughout the research spectrum. “Having people from various backgrounds brought on a more diverse way of thinking, more different ways of tackling a problem,” said Dr. Jarvis. “Sometimes you have to reach beyond your own closest relatives to figure out how things work, and jump beyond your own familiarity to do good science.”

Additionally, Dr. Jarvis encouraged audience members to engage in mentoring—“Statistically, women and minorities seek out mentors at a lower rate. We have to change that,” he said—and to help cure society’s racial diseases by being the best scientists possible and leading by example.

Dr. Sharon Silbiger Department of Medicine Albert Einstein College of Medicine Bronx NY
Sharon Silbiger, MD

Dr. Sharon Silbiger, Professor of Medicine and Associate Chair of Medicine for Undergraduate Education, passed away September 6, 2012 after a long battle with chondrosarcoma. She was an outstanding nephrologist and active investigator on the role of gender in renal disease progression. Before her appointment to the Associate Chair position, she was House Staff Program Director for the Department of Medicine for nearly a decade. Nationally, Dr. Silbiger was immediate past-president of Women in Nephrology, a standing committee of the American Society of Nephrology (where she was a vocal proponent of gender equity in the organization), founding Vice Chair of the ASN Workforce Committee, a member of the ASN Board of Advisors, and as a member of the ASN Task Force on Increasing Interest in Nephrology Careers. (more)

The Sharon Silbiger, M.D. Fund was established in her memory and supports this annual lectureship in the Department of Medicine.

"Sharon was a strong advocate for diversity in academic medicine. For all of these reasons, Dr. Jarvis's address is a worthy tribute to Dr. Silbiger and the principles for which she stood," said Dr. Victor Schuster, Senior Vice Dean at Einstein and host of the lecture.

Dr. Schuster also acknowledged Ms. Grisel Vazguez, Administrator to the Chair of the Department of Medicine, for coordinating this year's seamlessly executed event.

Posted September 28, 2015 

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