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Clearly, he is very much the proud father, eager to see Janelia Farm peopled with busy scientists. Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, an important mentor when Rubin studied at the Cambridge laboratory and a senior adviser at Janelia, says, “He has the wonderful intention of trying to create an openness in science and give people the opportunity to break with the conventional way in which science is done today.”
Says his wife, Lynn, “It's a lot of hard work, but he's having the time of his life.” And Rubin, 56, agrees. For more than three decades, he has thrived as an experimental geneticist, research director, teacher, mentor, and biotech-company cofounder. But “if you asked me to describe my dream job,” he says, “this is it—and everything in my career has been preparing me for it.”
Hanging on the wall of Rubin's temporary office is a framed aerial photo of Nantasket, a long, narrow peninsula that juts into Boston Harbor, south of the city. Rubin has spent part of the summer there for the past 50 years in a house belonging to his family. “I like to walk on the beach,” he says, simply. “I do my best thinking when I'm walking on the beach.”
Nantasket is within easy reach of the working class Boston neighborhood where Rubin was born in 1950 to parents who were both the children of Russian immigrants. Today, his speech, rapid and precise, retains a Boston flavor: “R” sounds drop from “park” and “pattern,” and are translocated, like broken chromosomes, to the ends of words like “idea.”
His mother taught school and his father was an electrician. His only sibling, an older brother, is a professor at Duke University. Rubin's parents kept a Kosher house and Rubin was bar mitzvahed: “I consider myself Jewish, and am culturally in tune with my heritage,” he says. The family placed great value on education, and his father earned an associate's degree at age 62. Gerry liked sports and played street basketball but was, inexplicably, an underachiever in elementary school. He caught fire in junior high and won admission to the selective Boston Latin School, graduating in 1967.
Rubin gravitated to math and science at Boston Latin, even doing extracurricular work in a cancer research laboratory at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Planning to major in chemistry, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he took his first formal biology courses. Rubin was deeply impressed by the humility of one professor, biologist Salvador Luria, who came to work the morning he learned he won the Nobel Prize and immediately erased a big “congratulations” message the students had written on the board. “He told us that just because he had won the Prize, it didn't mean his work was superior to that of his peers,” says Rubin.
It had been 15 years since the discovery of the DNA double helix, and Rubin recognized that biology had entered a new era and that he wanted to be a part of it. He also discovered, at MIT and in the two summers he spent at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, that he had a strong affinity for experimental science.
After receiving his B.S. in 1971, Rubin won scholarships to study at the MRC-LMB in Cambridge, where scientists such as James Watson and Francis Crick, as well as Brenner, Fred Sanger, and Max Perutz, were making great discoveries in biology. “All these heroes I had read about in my courses were there, walking around and doing experiments in the lab,” says Rubin.
Photo: Paul Fetters