Talking Science Series at Rockefeller University/
By Rea Kondi/
On Saturday, the Rockefeller University hosted its Talking Science lecture – an annual event that is designed to engage students in current research areas that are being conducted there. A world renowned center for biomedical and physical sciences, the university has been the site of historic breakthroughs such as the discovery of blood types and ways to preserve blood, development of effective vaccines against bacterial meningitis, discovery that DNA is the basic material of heredity and more.
Saturday’s lecture, titled “Singing in the Brain: A Personal Science Journey,” featured Dr. Erich D. Jarvis , a Rockefeller University alumnus who currently heads the new Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language. Dr. Jeanne Garbarino, the Director of the University’s science outreach programs spoke briefly about the early life of Dr. Erich Jarvis who grew up with a love of dancing and a passion for science. When it came to choosing his career, he realized the possibility of making a positive change in the world was more likely to occur in the science field. He majored in math and biology from Hunter College and studied for his doctorate at Rockefeller University. Dr. Jarvis focused on studying the vocal learning in various species of birds. He investigates vocal learning in songbirds and other animals as a model of understanding spoken language in humans. His interest in songbird learning has expanded into the parallel pursuit of genomics. Sequencing analysis and further research have helped pushed the boundaries in understanding mechanisms that guide the formation of neural circuits during learning. In his lecture, Dr. Jarvis provided examples of birds who could talk, like Disco the parakeet and those that can dance, such as Snowball the cockatoo, demonstrating the link between the motor circuit and control of the larynx, which allows for imitated speech and even movement based on rhythm. As a result, vocal learning birds surrounded by humans are able to imitate our speech almost accurately and string words together.
While vocal non-learning speeches, including our close primate relatives, are unable to speak, they understand us very well. This classifies them as auditory learners. Dr. Erich Jarvis mentioned Koko the gorilla who showed ability to communicate through a modified version of American Sign Language. She was able to understand approximately 7,000 words and demonstrated her comprehension through motion. Dr. Jarvis and his team continue to analyse the differences in the neuronal pathways and genomic sequencing between other animals and humans. He is working on developing neuroengineering tools to manipulate vocal learning circuits and circuits of other behavioral traits.
The lecturer kept the audience engaged and joked about calling someone a “birdbrain”. Saturday’s Talking Science “Singing in the Brain” lecture was a rewarding and stimulating experience worthy of further exploration.