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He traded continued success studying the biology of neural stem cells for the uncharted world of fruit fly emotion. Anderson likens his path to the one pursued by Caltech colleague Seymour Benzer. “Starting out in solid-state physics, he switched to molecular biology, then made a 180-degree turn and founded the field of neurobiology and neurogenetics,” says Anderson, with obvious admiration.
Benzer is motivated by the answer to a single question. “Isn't it more crazy not to follow the driving force of your curiosity and passion?” he asks, rooting for Anderson. “David has the courage, energy, and intelligence to make a go of it.”
Although Anderson has an obvious love of risk, he has certainly shown himself capable of playing by the usual rules. After completing his postdoctoral studies in the Columbia University laboratory of HHMI investigator Richard Axel (2004 Nobel Prize-winner, and his mentor), Anderson spent more than 20 years helping to pioneer the study of the developmental biology of stem cells in mice.
“He made seminal contributions to our understanding of neural development,” says Sean Morrison, an HHMI investigator at the University of Michigan who was a postdoctoral fellow in Anderson's lab from 1996 to 1999. “He discovered many of the genes that regulate neurogenesis. And his lab is the place where neural crest stem cells were identified and characterized.”
Anderson's discovery of three classes of master genes inside neural stem cells—genes that give rise to neurons and related cells that insulate nerve fibers—was one of the first to answer the larger question of how stem cells differentiate. He also discovered some fundamental properties of angiogenesis (the formation of blood vessels)—namely, that arteries, but not veins, are aligned with nerves in embryonic skin and that the nerves are required for arterial differentiation.
But Anderson needed a change.
Was it the typical lag time of 12 to 18 months between testing a hypothesis in mice and getting a result that agitated him? “I can get very impatient,” he concedes.
Was it the need to recharge his research batteries by challenging himself? Yes, he agrees. “One of my biggest self criticisms is that I tend to identify problems and get into areas a little too early—which is also good because I'm ahead of the pack.”
Or was it the thrill of the hunt, the same feeling that once tempted him toward archaeology when he was a boy? Perhaps. “The happiest moments of my scientific life have come when I've made that initial discovery and I suddenly glimpse something about nature that, at that moment, no one else knows.”