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A ‘can-do, visionary’ scientist is named graduate school dean

Medicine@Yale, 2010 - July Aug


Thomas D. Pollard, M.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, has been appointed dean of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1. As an undergraduate at Pomona College in his native California in the early 1960s, Pollard, also professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and of cell biology, was eager to understand how cells move (cell motility) and how they divide to form daughter cells (cytokinesis), questions that have guided his research ever since.

For more than three decades of research on these topics, Pollard has won some of the most prestigious awards in biomedical science, including the E.B. Wilson Medal (2004), from the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB); the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science (2006, with James A. Spudich, Ph.D., of Stanford School of Medicine); and the Gairdner International Award (2006, with Alan Hall, Ph.D., of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center).

In addition to their importance in basic biology, motility and cytokinesis have direct relevance to oncology, because these processes drive cancer’s spread and the growth of tumors. Research in Pollard’s laboratory, which has combined techniques from biochemistry, biophysics, cell biology, and genetics, has focused on actin filaments—long, thin protein fibers that are a basic component of the cytoskeleton, the intracellular framework that lends strength to cells and gives them their shape. Actin filaments generate force for locomotion in white blood cells and cancer cells, and form the “purse string” that pinches a cell into two daughter cells during cell division, a process that is also important in wound healing.

“Always a scientist at heart,” as he was described by Yale President Richard C. Levin upon his appointment, Pollard has nonetheless gravitated to leadership roles throughout his career. He has served as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, of the Biophysical Society, and of the ASCB, which has called him the “personification of [the society’s] can-do, visionary spirit.” He was associate editor of the Journal of Cell Biology for seven years.

With Bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and zoology from Pomona, Pollard earned his M.D., cum laude, at Harvard Medical School, where he was later a professor. He joined the Yale faculty as Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology in 2001.

Pollard is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Biophysical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for which he now serves on the board of directors.

Married to his wife, Patty, since 1964 (she has been president of the Yale University Women’s Organization for the past 4 years), Pollard passed on a love of science to his children, Katie and Dan, both of whom are computational biologists. In a 1992 ASCB profile, he said of his family, “We all like to see things work!”