Robert E. Pollack

Robert E. Pollack

Professional Memberships & Awards

Short Research Description

I direct the Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity [RCSS].  Our research agenda is to determine what an undergraduate student can come up with, organize and carry out as a  project involving science, subjectivity and service, if offered the chance to do so with advice from me and colleagues, and a considerable stipend while doing it.  We have found that giving undergraduates ownership of their project generates unexpected depths of creativity and novelty.  For current projects and more information, see

Additional research interest: Are there any good experiments that should not be done?

Full Research Description

Since arriving as a Professor to open my laboratory in the newly constructed Fairchild Laboratory in 1978 I have been involved in the long term research project of determining the parameters of a possible path to an alternative treatment for malignant tumors: reversion.  From 1968 to 1994, first at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under the direction of James d. Watson and then here, I carried out research on the phenomenon of reversion: the emergence of normal cells from within clonal populations of tumor cells.  This work has remained relevant and is referenced in many current research projects; however, since the early 1990s – after serving as the Dean of Columbia College and admitting women for the first time since its founding in 1754 - I myself have not led a funded laboratory.

Instead, I direct the Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity [RCSS], endowed by an alumnus of the College, Harvey Krueger ‘51.  Our research agenda is to determine what an undergraduate student can come up with, organize and carry out as a  project involving science, subjectivity and service, if offered the chance to do so with advice from me and colleagues, and a considerable stipend while doing it.  For current projects and more information, see
In addition, I bring my work on matters of science and subjectivity to other venues.  For example, I am

Co-Chair, University Seminar #791, “Science and Subjectivity”
Member, Mentoring subctty, Biology DEI Committee
Editor, Columbia University Press series “Science and Religion
Former Director (2009-2019), University Seminars
Member, Affiliate Faculty, Union Theological Seminary
Guest lecturer, Academy for Jewish Religion
Member, Board of Directors, Healing of the Nations Foundation


Robert Pollack is an American biologist whose interests cross many academic lines.  He grew up in Brooklyn, attended public schools, and majored in physics at Columbia University, where he graduated from the College in 1961.  He received a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Brandeis University in 1966, and subsequently was a postdoctoral Fellow in Pathology with Howard Green at NYU Medical center, and at the Weizmann Institute in Israel with Ernest Winocour.  He was then recruited to Cold Spring harbor Laboratory by James Watson to establish a research program on reversion of cancer cells.  He became a tenured Associate Professor of Microbiology at SUNY Stony Brook Medical Center, before returning to Columbia as a Professor of Biological Sciences in 1978.  He served as Dean of Columbia College from 1982 to 1989, overseeing the enrollment of women in the College for the first time.

He remains at Columbia as a Professor of Biological sciences, and also served as Director of the University Seminars from 2011 to 2020; he was the fifth Director since its founding in 1944.  He is also a member of the Affiliate Faculty of the American Studies Program.  From 1999-2012, he was the Director of the Center for the Study of science and Religion, a program within Columbia’s Earth Institute.  In 2014 his interest in questions that lie at the intersect of science and subjectivity, coupled with the gift of an endowment from College alumnus Harvey Krueger ’51, led him to establish the Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity, a project within Columbia’s Center for Science and Society.

In addition to these activities, Pollack has authored many research reports, reviews, articles, and opinion pieces on molecular biology, medical ethics and science education as well as writing or editing ten books, including Signs of Life: the Language and Meanings of DNA (1994), which won the Lionel Trilling Award and has been translated into six languages, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith: Order, meaning and free will in modern science (2000), and The Missing Moment: How the unconscious shapes modern science (2001).  His most recent book is The Course of Nature, a book of drawings by the artist Amy Pollack, accompanied by his short explanatory essays.


From “After reading a Child's guide to physics,”  by W. H. Auden, 1961


This passion of our kind

For the process of finding out

Is a fact one can hardly doubt,

But Would rejoice in it more

If I knew more clearly what

We wanted the knowledge for.

Felt certain still that the mind

Is free to know or not.


It has chosen once, I seems,

And whether our concern

For magnitudes extremes

Really becomes a creature

Who comes in a median size,

Or politicizing Nature

Be altogether wise,

Is something we shall learn.


Pollack received the Alexander Hamilton Medal from Columbia University, the Gershom Mendes Seixas Award from the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and held a Guggenheim Fellowship. He presented the Schoff Lectures at Columbia in 1998, which led to his book, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith. He also presented the Dean’s distinguished Lecture in the Humanities at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2000.


B.A., Columbia College, Physics, 1961
Ph.D., Brandeis University, Biology, 1966


EEEB 4321, Human Identity

American Studies W3930, Life at the End of Life

In the News

2022, "Ep. 1: Columbia and Its Forgotten Jewish Campus". Gatecrashers. Podcast hosted by Mark Oppenheimer. 13 Sep. 2022.

2022, Jackson, Elizabeth. “An Education in Life: On Life at the End of Life, Companionship, and Care.” The Blue and White. 10 Mar. 2022.

2021. Amy Pollack, Robert Pollack. "Where is the Overlap of Jewish Identity and Jewish Ancestry?Sinai and Synapses. 22 July 2021.

2019. "Rethinking Our Vision of Success: A Conversation with Robert PollackEdgecast. Podcast hosted by 10 Oct. 2022.

2017, “Can We Make Cancer Cells Normal Again?” Columbia University Irving Medical Center, 6 Apr. 2017.


2022, The Course of Nature: Evolution and Its Consequences | Amy and Robert Pollack - YouTube

2021, "Episode One." Genetic Dreams, Genetic Nightmareshosted by Matthew Cobb, BBC Radio 4. 20 July 2021.

2019, Pollack, R., "The light that stays on beyond the oil: The Jewish Festival of Chanukah and the location of the Soul", presented at West End Synagogue, New York, December 14, 2019.

2016, Pollack, R., "Columbia College Class of 1961: Fifty-fifth Reunion." Faculty Room, Low Memorial Library. 4 June 2016.

2016, Pollack, R. "Can Faith Broaden Reason?" Trinity Church, Wall Street, Discovery Adult Education Program. 22 May 2016.

2016, Pollack, R. "From Ebola to Zika: Present and Emerging Infectious Diseases." Introductory Remarks. 19 April 2016.

2014, Pollack, R., "Commemoration of Robert Belknap." St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University. 12 Sept. 2014.

2002, "Part III: Dolly" Three Tales by Steven Reich, Boosey & Hawkes. 12 May 2002. 

2001, Pollack, R., Evolution and Religion, PBS Roundtable: science and Faith

Representative Publications


[A list of all books by Robert Pollack]

Pollack, Amy and Robert Pollack, 2014. 2nd edition, The course of Nature: a Book of Drawings on Natural Selection and its Consequences, Stony Creek Press, 2014. Link

Pollack, R., with frontispiece by Amy Pollack, 2012. The 1999 Schoff Memorial Lectures, paperback edition: The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith. New york, Columbia University Press.

Pollack, Amy and Robert Pollack, 2012. The course of Nature 1st edition, 2012, Stevens Inst. of Technology.

Pollack, R., ed., Common Ground, proceedings of the fourth annual Fetzer Institute Symposium, e- Book (2009).

Pollack, R., ed., Love and its Obstacles, proceedings of the first annual Fetzer Institute Symposium, e- Book (2007)
Pollack, R., with frontispiece by Amy Pollack, The 1999 Schoff Memorial Lectures: The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith: Order, Meaning, and Free Will in Modern Science, New York: Columbia University Press (2000).
reviews on publisher's site Books of Distinction reviews on 

Pollack, R., with frontispiece by Amy Pollack, 1999. The Missing Moment: How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science.  Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
reviews on publisher's site Link

Pollack,R., with frontispiece by Amy Pollack, Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (1994).

Pollack, R., ed., Readings in Mammalian Cell Culture. Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. (1973).

Hellman, S., Oxman, M., and Pollack, R., eds., Biohazards in Biological Research. Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (1973).

Pollack, R. and Pfeiffer, S., Animal Cell Culture Cell Manual. Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (1970).

Book Chapters

2008 McPhearson, Timon, Stuart P.D. Gill, Robert Pollack, and Julia E. Sable. “Increasing Scientific Literacy in Undergraduate Education: A Case Study from ‘Frontiers of Science’ at Columbia University.”  In A Vision of Transdisciplinarity: Laying Foundations for a World Knowledge Dialogue (Eds. Frédéric Darbellay, Moira Cockell, Jérôme Billotte, and Francis Waldvogel), EPFL Press, Switzerland.


[A list of all articles, from Google Scholar]

2022, Pollack, R., and Cobb, M., “Are there any good experiments tha should not be done?,” PLOS Biology February 14

2021, Pollack, A. and Pollack, R., "Where is the Overlap of Jewish Identity and Jewish Ancestry?," Sinai and Synapses: Scientists in Synagogues, July 22, 2021.

2021, Cobb, M. and Pollack, R., “A dangerous, wrong or unneeded experiment? Don’t do it,” Nature, 594:496

2021 Pollack, R., Introduction to “A Community of Scholars: The University Seminars at 75,” Columbia University Press.

2020 Pollack, R., "A Conversation With a Coronavirus," Earth Institute, April 27, 2020.

2019 Pollack, R., "Rethinking Our Vision of Success,", October 10, 2019.

2019 Loike, J.D., Pollack, R., "Develop Organoids, Not Chimeras, For Transplantation," The Scientist, August 23, 2019.

2019 Jeffery, K., Pollack, R., Rovelli, C., "On the statistical mechanics of life: Schrödinger revisited," Entropy, August 15, 2019.

J.D. Loike, R. Pollack, "Opinion: Ethical boundaries needed on the uses of synthetic DNA," The Scientist, March 1, 2019.

J.D. Loike, R. Pollack, "Opinion: How to define life," The Scientist, May 2, 2019.

2019 Pollack, R., Introduction to “A Community of Scholars: The University Seminars at 75,” Columbia University Press, in press.

2018 Pollack, R., The Science of One Life at a Time, chapter 4, in Seckbach, J. & R. Gordon, Eds. Theology and Science: From Genesis To Astrobiology Singapore, World Scientific Publishing.

2018 Pollack, R., et. al., “How not to talk about race and genetics,” Buzzfeed Opinion

2018 Pollack, R., Director’s report, University Seminars

2018, Pollack, R., You'll Never Get a Job in America. Columbia Jester,

2017 Pollack, R. and Moss-Salentijn, L, "Report to the University Senate, February 24, 2017”.

2016 Pollack R., "Knowing vs. Seeing: Philosophy and Experience," in CrossCurrents.

2016 Pollack, R. "Seeing and Knowing." Essay. The Current. Spring 2016. 

2016 Powers, S., and R. Pollack, “Inducing stable reversion to achieve cancer control,” Nature Reviews/Cancer 16: 266. 

2016  Shaw, A., K. Schaefer, Lechich A. and Pollack, R., What do College Students and Nursing Home Residents Take Away from a Summer immersed in Palliative Care?, Harvard Medical School 2016 Soma Weiss Undergraduate Research Symposium, Poster.

2015 Brokowski, C., Pollack, M., and Pollack R. Cutting Eugenics out of CRISPR-Cas9, Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine 6:263 (2015).

2015 Pollack, R., Eugenics Lurks in the Shadow of CRISPRScience 348, 871.

2015, Pollack, R., The New SETI Initiative: Is There Intelligent Live on Earth? Traces,

2015 Pollack, R., A Look at Our Chapel WindowsBnai Jeshurun

2015 Pollack, R., Foreword, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?, four lectures by Msgr Lorenzo Albacete, Crossroads, NY.

2015 Pollack, R., in press, "Why is There a Naked Girl on a Horse at the Entrance to Low Rotunda?Columbia College Today, Winter., p. 92

2014 Pollack, R. and Williams, P., "Who you really Are," Genewatch.

2014, Pollack, R., Where in This World is the Human Soul?, Science, Religion and Culture.

2014 Pollack R., "How the Unconscious shapes modern science," Jews and Genes, ed. E. Dorff, Chapter 21, in press.

2014 Pollack, R., "Genesis Engines – why bother?", Preface, Computation and Chemistry in the Quest for Life's Origin. Eds. Bruce Damer, Joseph Seckbach and Richard Gordon.

2014, Pollack, R., The Embodied Self. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law,

2013 Pollack, R., Foreword, "Our changing Journey to the End," ed. C. Staudt.

2013 Pollack, R., Letter, "Frontiers Incident," Columbia Spectator February 25.

2013 Pollack R.,"How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science," chapter of "International Jewish Discourse Project on Religion and Ethics at the Frontier of Genetic Medicine," JPS, in press.

2013 Pollack, R., "Introduction," Paperback edition of Faith of Biology.

2013 Pollack, R., "Can faith broaden reason?," GeneWatch 26, August-September.

2013, Pollack, R., , Podcast, The Religion of Science: Conquering the Unknowable

2012 Pollack, R., "Molecular Biology: The Short Life of a New Field," Earth Institute Sustainable Development Seminars.

2012 Pollack, R., illustrated by A. Pollack, "Commentary: Being Jewish is more Mind than Matter," Forward.

2012 Pollack, R., "Teaching and Research at Columbia," Letter, Columbia Spectator March 9.

2012, Pollack, R., One Candle, One Life, One Planet: The Jewish Festival of Hanukkah and the Deep Meaning of Small Differences, J. Inter-religious dialogue.

2012 Pollack, R., "Mindfulness at the end of life," Kol Hadash June 2012.

2012 Pollack, R., "Bemidbar: Grasshoppers, Almonds, and the Anthropocene," Kol Hadash January 2012.

2011, Pollack, R., Surrendering Secrets. Kol Hadash, B’nai Jeshurun

2011 Pollack, R., "The Whole Megillah: Purim, Queen Esther and Mordechai." Kol Hadash January 2011.

2011 Pollack, R., "Natural Selection, the Human Genome, and Race," Chapter 2,Race and The Genetic Revolution, ed. S. Krimsky, Columbia U. Press.

2011 Pollack, R., illustrated by A. Pollack, Selections from "Natural Selection, the Human Genome, and Race," GeneWatch.

2011 Pollack, R., "Locating the Soul in an Age of Modern Medicine." Presented at Symposium Science, Technology, and the Humanities: A New Synthesis, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken.

2010 Beale, N. and Pollack, R. "The Great Commandment, Tao, and the Survival of Humanity." Union Seminary Quarterly Review.October 2010.

2010 Pollack, R., "Be Strong, Be Trusting: Reading Psalm 27 in Elul." Kol Hadash September/October 2010.

2010 Pollack, R., "Ruth the Moabite, David the King, and the Fallacy of Biological Judaism," Kol Hadash April 2010.

2010 Pollack, R., "The Rose Window and the DNA Crystal," Kol Hadash February 2010.

2010, Pollack, R., I am, therefore I think.  Columbia Spectator,

2006, Pollack, R., The Religious Obligation to Ask Questions of Nature and the State: Bonhoeffer on the Protection and Dignity of Human Life, in the Context of DNA-based Genetic Medicine Today, Union Theological Seminary.

2007, Pollack, R., Knowing our place. Riverside Church Sermon,

2007, Pollack, R., We have been around a long time, CrossCurrents.

2005, Pollack, R., Optimizing the Human Response to Natural Evil. Understanding Katrina Conference,

2002, Pollack, R., The Known, Unknown, and the Unknowable.Trinity School,

2002, Pollack, R., Cancer as Metaphor: My Experiences in Basic Research 1966 – 1996. Marshall foundation.


2000, Pollack, R., The Human Genome and the Human Community.  Issues in Science and Technology,

1999, Pollack, R., Wisdom versus knowledge: an agenda for a more humane medical science, FASEB Journal.

1997, Pollack, R., Hard Days on the Endless Frontier. FASEB Journal,


1996, Pollack, R., Avoiding “Perverted Science”: The Dangers of Willful Ignorance. Change Magazine

1995 Pollack, R., "What Philanthropy Should Not Learn from 'The Bell Curve'" The Chronicle of Philanthropy 39. January 1995.

1989, Pollack, R., Summing up: A dean's valedictory. Columbia College today,

1981, Pollack, R., From Theory to Praxis, Columbia College today.

1968, Pollack, R., Green, H. and Todaro, G., Growth control in cultured cells: selection of sublines with increased sensitivity to contact inhibition and decreased tumor-producing ability. PNAS