James Jarvis, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City

A talented musician, Jim Jarvis, MD, investigates the role of the innate immune system in juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) in hopes of offering earlier and more targeted treatment to children with the disease.

AT: What kind of music do you play?

JJ: I was a serious classical guitar player all the way through my rheumatology fellowship. Then, about five years ago, a bunch of friends formed a band. We’re called the Space Heaters, and we play 1950s and ’60s rock‘n’roll. Playing guitar in a rock band involves totally different scales than with a classical guitar, and I had to relearn the whole instrument.

AT: What led you into the field of pediatric rheumatology?

JJ: When I was in training, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was struck by how different the time frames are in pediatric and adult rheumatology. If you are a 14-year-old girl with a rheumatic disease and you have your all-state violin tryout in two months, losing even just four weeks of functional activity might change the shape of your high school career. I also realized that so little was known about these diseases that even a country boy from Vermont like me could make a contribution.

AT: How do you describe your research?

JJ: We are trying to get the overview of how the different parts of the immune system interact to lead to juvenile arthritis. So instead of taking just one aspect of the disease and studying it in depth, we are trying to see the entire forest. We are finding clues to JRA in the innate immune system, which means it’s very possible that diseases like this are not autoimmune diseases at all, but chronic auto-inflammatory diseases. That gives us new targets for therapies. It’s almost like what people must have felt when they realized that it is the Earth that moves and the sun that stands still. When you hypothesize that, then things that didn’t make sense start to make sense.

AT: How does music influence your research?

JJ: Research is essentially creative. Appreciation of the creative impulse has driven both my love of the arts and my passion for science. Creative ways of solving problems require the same skill set, whether it’s how you write a four-part fugue or how you unravel a complex disease. 

AT: Do you play music in your office?

JJ: Yes, in both ways. I actually have a guitar here, and I play CDs – Mozart is a favorite. I like a Baroque lutenist, Silvius Leopold Weiss, because I play his music on the guitar. There are a few pieces I can’t listen to. Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet is amazing, but I can’t work with it on because I am compelled to stop and listen. And I’ve tried to work to any number of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, but find myself singing along.