Thomas Pollard took biology like everybody else in high school, where he was first encapsulated by amoebas crawling around on a microscope slide. The rest of his career hasn’t been quite as regular.
Pursuing a chemistry major at Pomona College combined with biology (lacking a biochemistry or molecular biology major at the time), he spent one summer in a lab making time lapse movies of cells, tissue culture, nerves, glial cells, fibroblasts, and more, something that was notably more difficult in the 1960s.
He went to the library to see if anything was known about cell movement and it turned out essentially none of the molecules had been discovered. He saw this as a big opportunity to discover some very important. He continued on to medical school, what those interested in scientific careers did at the time, at Harvard, where he found an opportunity to work in a lab doing electron microscopy in his spare time and continued learning about cell movement.
After completing medical school and an internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital, his plan to be a doctor was interrupted by the Vietnam War, with many doctors being drafted after their internships. One of the options instead of military service was to do research at the National Institutes of Health. Pollard applied and was accepted as a staff associate. Here he began studying phagocytosis, a function closely related to cell motility sometimes called cellular ingestion. This was somewhat of a shock to him and his plans to become a doctor, but he found a passion for research that motivated him.
As Pollard continued through his training, from student to postdoc, he witnessed the growth of this new field. During this period, scientists first purified actin and myosin, the molecules primarily responsible for human muscle function, from cells other than muscles. These molecules were discovered to be tremendously important in the types of cellular movements Pollard had been interested in for years. For around a decade following, there was a rush to find other proteins involved and determine their functions.
From 1972 to 1977, Pollard joined in studying cell motility and another related cellular event called cytokinesis back at Harvard Medical School. After notable success studying the dynamics of actin, in 1977 Johns Hopkins picked him to head a new Department of Cell Biology, an opportunity Pollard couldn’t turn down.
Pollard recalled that the early department, essentially all members of which he hired, did exceedingly well: “There’s one, two, three, four of us in the national academy, two in the royal society, one nobel prize… What a great group I had.” He continued working here for almost twenty years on the same cellular functions–motility and cytokinesis–before the Salk Institute came knocking and asked him to be the President in 1996. Unlike many other such research institute leadership positions, this one involved still having a lab, and he accepted. Here his group solved the crystal structure of the arp2/3 complex and made significant progress before he came to Yale in 2001 as a professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, where he has stayed since.
Pollard is an avid runner, Sterling Professor, occasional local 5k participant, and head of MCDB205: Cell Biology, a course offered every Spring to brave young students. Don’t expect to take it without learning a whole lot about actin.
Pollard married Patricia Snowden in 1964. They have two children: Katherine Snowden Pollard and Daniel Avery Pollard. Katherine Snowden Pollard is Director and Senior Investigator of the Gladstone Institute of Data Science and Biotechnology Daniel Avery Pollard is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Western Washington University.