You’re the Inspiration: Roberta Pollock

By Dick Anderson Photo by Kevin Burke

“Mentoring students and making a difference in their lives has been the highlight of my career,” says Pollock, who played a central role in the College's response to the pandemic

Roberta Pollock
Professor of Biology
Years at Oxy: 35

What attracted you to Occidental? I had always assumed that I would be a faculty member at a research institution. After a personal tragedy, I wanted to help people more directly, and realized that teaching was very important to me. A friend suggested that a small liberal arts college would allow me to do both research and teaching—and it was a true lightbulb moment. I had two job offers at liberal arts colleges when I heard about the Oxy job from a faculty member at Haverford, Judy Owen, who told me I had to apply for it.

Professor of Biology Roberta Pollock in the 1990s.
Pollock with a research student in her lab in the 1990s.

While I admit to having Southern California stereotypes (La La Land), I was happily surprised by the quality of the faculty and students at Oxy. And when I met with President Slaughter and we talked about Oxy divesting in South Africa, I was convinced that Oxy was where I should be. It also helped that I needed access to a flow cytometer (a very expensive instrument that analyzes and sorts cells using fluorescent labels), which I could get at both Caltech and UCLA.

What is your favorite course? Immunology. I developed this course during my first year at Oxy and taught it through this past year. Personally, it gave me a chance to marvel at all the truly amazing changes that have occurred in the field. It is the course where I feel I help students the most.

It takes students the entire semester to learn the basic language of immunology. The immune system is very complex and our knowledge of how it works ranges from the organismal level to the most minute levels of gene expression and modification. The most important skill that students learn in this class is how to read, understand, and analyze very challenging scientific papers. I joke with my students that if they can figure out how to read an immunology paper, they can read any paper. Plus the skills they learn in the lab portion of the course help them in obtaining jobs.

What will you miss about teaching? The students. Mentoring students and making a difference in their lives has been the highlight of my career. Introducing them to biology as an actively changing and exciting field has always been fun and rewarding, whether it’s getting students in Bio 130 (Introductory Cell and Molecular Biology) to read and present on current hot topics, or to analyze complicated immunology papers. Working with students facing challenges, whether personal or academic, and helping them get the support they need has been incredibly rewarding.

Pollock with her Summer Research Program students in 2014.
Pollock with her Summer Research Program students in 2014.

I will miss working with my research students the most. When they come into my lab, they are initially overwhelmed by learning the techniques, but even more so by the immune system and our research model. Watching them grow and become independent scientists has been a highlight of my career.

You played a significant role in the College’s response to the pandemic. What did you take away from that experience? It was demanding but rewarding. For the first time in my life, my expertise was relevant and useful. I worked harder during the pandemic than at any other time in my life.

The highlight of that work was the Biology and Epidemiology of COVID-19 course that Dr. Kim Shriner ’80 and I developed together. The opportunity to teach a course on the pandemic as it was happening was unique. We discussed the structure, molecular biology, and molecular evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus; different testing approaches; the pathophysiology and histology of COVID-19 and the different manifestations in different populations; therapeutic and vaccine approaches; and the epidemiology of this disease. A major focus was the racial disparities and social inequities seen with this disease.

The outcome that I most value from this work were the friendships that I developed with Dr. Shriner, Dr. Magdalena Arias ’92, and Sara Semal [Oxy’s former senior director of student wellness and special adviser to the president on health and safety].

What are your plans after Oxy? I’m going to take three months where I can do whatever I feel like doing. I anticipate that most of my time will be spent sleeping (I have a lot of sleep to catch up on), reading, and working around my home. I’ll also ride my horse and my bike. Then I look forward to traveling—I already have several trips in mind. And I’ll be doing some volunteer work, most notably training my dog Taz as a therapy dog and taking him for visits to retirement facilities. As we’ve had to move my mother to an assisted living facility, I’ve been struck by how many seniors miss their dogs, and the comfort that Taz gives them.

Anything else you would like to add?  My personal philosophy has been that I want to live my life so that on my deathbed I can look back over my life and feel good about what I have done—that I have made the world a better place—but also enjoy every day as though it was my last. Thank you to the Oxy community, especially my students, for an incredibly challenging, rewarding experience.

“Roberta instilled in me a lifelong curiosity and passion for science for which I am forever grateful.”

Phil Wong ’93: Coming into Oxy with a vague notion of wanting to study biology but not being sure what I wanted to do with it, I welcomed Roberta’s invitation to join her immunology laboratory to obtain undergraduate research experience to help me decide between medical school and graduate school. She was relatively new to the College then, so it was an absolute blast to be one of the pioneering members of her group to contribute to her research studying somatic hypermutation during antibody maturation in B cells.

Roberta was an excellent mentor in the lab, guiding us in our experiments and in becoming proficient with popular molecular biology methods that bring back memories to this day—restriction enzyme mapping, anyone? Working with the other members of her lab over the years resulted in lasting friendships as we spent significant time together at the bench to the tunes of Billy Joel in the background, or eating at local restaurants, or housesitting Roberta’s pets!

In her courses, Roberta was an engaging professor with a strong dedication to teaching and high standards. Her lectures on the immune system and how it works to defend our bodies against foreign microorganisms were what attracted me into the area. She anticipated excellence in all you did, which sometimes made for a bit of pressure in hoping to meet her expectations, but this was just a strong encouragement to excel!

Roberta was great about exposing her students to the most current scientific developments. I fondly remember jumping into her flashy red Porsche and driving up the California coastline to attend the Midwinter Conference of Immunologists. It was a lot to absorb for an undergrad, but Roberta was always there to clarify important concepts and give assurance that it would become easier to interpret complex data plots as they zip by.

From working with Roberta, I realized that I really enjoyed the research environment and went on to earn my Ph.D. in immunology. Subsequently, I worked on vaccines and therapies for inflammatory diseases in industry before taking a role at an academic medical center studying immune correlates of clinical outcomes in cancer patients receiving experimental immunotherapies. Roberta instilled in me a lifelong curiosity and passion for science for which I am forever grateful.

Wong directs the Immune Monitoring Facility at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“Her love for horses was only rivaled by her enthusiasm for teaching and immunology.”

Christopher Hino ’15: I vividly recall feeling a mixture of curiosity and apprehension when I first set foot in the laboratory as a sophomore at Oxy. The labyrinth of glassware, complex machinery, and pipettes that surrounded me was daunting and seemingly insurmountable. However, my fears quickly melted away upon meeting Roberta Pollock, who warmly welcomed me to her lab, which she affectionately called “Team Coryne” (after the Corynebacterium she was researching). Roberta was a captivating presence—charismatic, kind-hearted, and passionate.

It quickly became evident that her love for horses was only rivaled by her enthusiasm for teaching and immunology. My most cherished memories of Oxy are the adventures I shared with her and Team Coryne—weekly lab meetings, visits to the horse ranch, and road trips to Asilomar for conferences.

From guiding us through hundreds of ELISA experiments to providing constructive feedback on our summer grant proposals, she knew precisely how to get the best out of us. Her support never faltered even when our experiments sometimes failed to yield the expected results. It was here that she taught me an invaluable life lesson: Setbacks in life, just like in research, present golden opportunities for learning and growth.

Roberta’s selfless devotion to teaching and helping others has become a model for compassion that I continue to strive for in my career as a physician-scientist. I hope that one day I will be able to positively impact as many lives as she has during her time at Oxy.

Following in Pollock’s footsteps, Hino will be completing his medical training in allergy and immunology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

“Dr. Pollock shaped us into confident young scientists and ultimately into confident, patient-centered physicians.”

Dina Kamel ’10: From the moment Luca Valle ’10 and I walked into Dr. Pollock’s office as sophomores to ask to join her research team, she took us under her wing and provided countless opportunities for personal and professional growth. She was integral to my development as a scientist and an adult.

Dr. Pollock didn’t limit our experience to the inside of the lab. In the course of doing  research on the immune response to a bacterial infection in horses, we went on field trips to local stables, flew to UC Davis to meet with collaborators, and took a road trip to Monterey to attend and present our research findings at a prestigious scientific meeting. Dr. Pollock shaped us into confident young scientists and ultimately into confident, patient-centered physicians.

After I graduated a semester early, Dr. Pollock hired me on as a lab assistant for that last semester; it meant so much to me to still have a home at Oxy and still feel like part of the community. In the years since, we have kept in touch. When I got married, she came to my wedding with her daughter to celebrate with us. After my husband and I had our first child, she sent him a sweet Christmas outfit. Back in January, Luca and I were meeting up for a walk with our babies and we asked Dr. Pollock to meet us for lunch. It felt like old times as we spoke about our families and careers. We told her then—as we want her to know now—how much she meant to us and how thankful we are for that day we walked into her office and she took us in.

Kamel is a clinical instructor at UCLA and is completing her endocrinology fellowship at USC.

“She encouraged me to be the best version of myself.”

Elise Burger ’11: Dr. Pollock is the most instrumental mentor I encountered at Oxy. She created a safe, wonderful place to ask questions and learn how to develop scientific hypotheses, and gave me the confidence to determine how to answer them.

She encouraged me to be the best version of myself and was always there for me both as a scientific mentor and as a personal cheerleader. Her passion for science and amazing teaching style inspired me to pursue not only a medical degree but also a Ph.D. in immunology. She was vital in supporting me through the application process, as no one in my family had ever attended grad school. I would not be the doctor or scientist that I am today without her mentorship. She has touched so many lives; we are all so lucky.

Burger is an assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Utah.