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“David Anderson sets a great example for the people who train in his lab—it’s not about ego or reputation, it’s about getting to the truth,” says Sean Morrison.
There was something else, too, Anderson acknowledges. Drosophila envy. “I've had it my whole career. Fruit flies are such a powerful system, and they are simpler. You can understand mechanisms that govern processes more easily than you can in mice.”
Other scientists have broken ranks before, of course. “But what makes Anderson's move more unusual is that he moved out of a very active field of which he was a leader,” says Gerald M. Rubin, HHMI vice president and long-time Drosophila researcher.
And he did it just a few years before California voters agreed to spend $3 billion to underwrite stem-cell research. That a tiny fruit fly proved irresistible to Anderson just as support for his core area of research was mounting illuminates another of Anderson's key beliefs. Put simply, packing up the furniture—if not exactly chopping it into kindling—is sometimes necessary to break new scientific ground, especially when herds of fellow scientists begin warming themselves at your campfire.
Morrison was just finishing his postdoctoral work when Anderson began to talk about shifting to studies on the molecular regulation of behavior. “My reaction was that it sounded like a really hard problem that was obviously of great interest to solve,” he recalls, “but I worried how much headway they'd be able to make experimentally.”
Anderson's the kind of standout scientist, though, who picks problems that everyone agrees are important but no one else knows how to solve, just like Richard Axel and his olfactory research, Morrison says. “Everyone else looked at the problem and agreed it would be cool to understand how we smell, but no one knew how to tackle it.”
Given Anderson's success in the five years since he began his scientific walkabout, few would now call him shortsighted. Morrison calls the move heroic. “As this new line of work matures in his lab, it will be a force in shaping our understanding of how behavior is regulated.”
Anderson expects to learn from his mistakes more rapidly and less expensively in fruit flies than he would in mice. But since he longs to get inside a fly's head to study the connections between neurons, genes, and behavior—Anderson's current passion—he'll need to be patient too. After all, he says, “It is extremely difficult for all but the most talented electrophysiologists—such as my Caltech colleague Gilles Laurent—to stick an electrode into a fly's brain and measure the electrical activity of its neurons.”
Photo: Misha Gravenor