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“A lot of things go on behind the scenes to make science happen,” says Todd Laverty, who for 29 years has supported the work of Gerry Rubin, director of HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus. For 23 of those years, Laverty managed Rubin’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley. For the last six, he has overseen the Drosophila and Media Prep shared resources at Janelia. His specialty is feeding, sheltering, moving, breeding, and otherwise nurturing fruit flies, as well as preparing meals for other laboratory animals. “It was obvious, right from the beginning, that I had found my niche.”
At Janelia, Laverty manages some 18,000 fly stocks—that is, 36,000 vials of flies, 50 to 100 flies per vial, each a unique genetic line. He shepherds the stocks through a 28-day lifecycle: egg, three larval stages, pupa, and hatched fly. Each morning, peering through a microscope at flies dozing on a pad suffused with carbon dioxide, he selects virgin females for genetic crosses. Each week, he starts new generations in fresh vials, using a duck feather to gently transfer the prospective parents from one plastic abode to the next. And each month, he manages the production of 130,000 vials of fly chow: a mixture of cornmeal, molasses, agar, and yeast—and gets four-star reviews from lab managers for quality and consistency.
“I can remember telling people, when I started out, ‘What I’m going to be doing 20 or 30 years from now, I don’t know. But I’m happy now doing what I’m doing,’” Laverty says. After he’d worked for Gerry four or five years, he remembers riding in an elevator with a gray-haired co-worker. “I teased him: ‘Who gets gray hair working in a lab?’ Funny thing: now I’m that gray-haired guy!”
Laverty is the only person Gerry Rubin brought from his Berkeley lab to Janelia. “There was no one better than Todd to set up a facility to support all the Drosophila labs here. He is very calm, and he’s very good at managing people and building a team,” says Rubin. “In my Berkeley lab, at times he had to deal with as many as 15 postdoctoral fellows, all with different needs and demands. He does a remarkable job of keeping everybody happy.” In a high-pressure laboratory setting, Rubin adds, “That’s a very unusual ability.”
Laverty describes himself as “a pleaser by nature. I get satisfaction out of starting a task and following through. PIs get the big ideas: ‘This is really cool, let’s figure this out. I’m not going to worry about the little steps right now.’ It's those little steps that I worry about.”
In Rubin’s lab at Berkeley, Laverty played a supporting role in more than 100 different research projects, including sequencing the Drosophila genome. Published in 2000, the sequence marked a scientific milestone because of the fruit fly’s pivotal role as a model organism in research, in areas ranging from aging and cancer to learning and memory. “There were hundreds of people in the field who could do the same thing that I was doing. But I had the opportunity to do it every day in the Rubin lab—and it was the Rubin lab that was sequencing the fly genome.”
Illustration: Chris King