A short history: my grandparents were immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe. I grew up in Brooklyn, attended P.S. 188, Mark Twain Junior High School, and Abraham Lincoln High School, where I remain proud to have won the Science Medal. I graduated Columbia College in 1961, the same year I met and married my wife Amy, an artist.
The arc of my career has not been a straight line. I began as a scientist by majoring in Physics in Columbia College, then switching to biophysics and molecular biology while at Brandeis University. With a PhD in Biology, I did a post-doc in the laboratory of Howard Green at NYU Medical Center, then took a job as laboratory director under James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. After a two-year diversion in the department of Microbiology at the Medical School at Stony Brook NY, I joined the faculty of the Biological Sciences department at Columbia in 1978.
Though I have never moved from Columbia in the past 35 years, my work here has continued to evolve. On arrival I set up an NIH-supported laboratory to follow up on my earlier discovery that genetically stable revertant cells could be recovered from clonal populations of malignant fibroblasts. The lab was successful in many ways, but I was not able then to follow out my hope and intention to use these cells to understand how reversion occurs, and how one might mimic that event through small molecules; that would be a new path to chemotherapy that would not generate the side-effects of normal-cell death. The idea has recently been rediscovered by others, and I look forward to the day when it has led to new treatments for cancer.
Soon after arriving at Columbia I was moved to write an essay for the alumni magazine, arguing that science should be part of the interdisciplinary core curriculum of the College (cv #). That caught the eye of then-President Michael Sovern, and I was appointed the 11th Dean of Columbia College in 1982. In that capacity I was responsible for bringing women into Columbia College, and had the great pleasure of serving as Dean for seven years, three of them totally co-educational.
My laboratory remained functional throughout, but by 1991 I had realized that my initial goal could not be met with the technology of the day, and I ceased to apply for Federal research grants, and instead, looking inward, began to concentrate on matters that lie on the margins of one or another science and one or another religion. That led me to set up the Columbia Center for the Study of Science and Religion in 1991, with support from the office of the Provost; the CSSR remains active today, and has recently received an endowment from one of the alumni who was most helpful to me when I was Dean.
In 2006 Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Columbia Earth Institute, invited me to bring the CSSR into EI, and it has remained affiliated with EI ever since. From 2010 to 2013 I was a member of the Earth Institute Faculty, and have remained an Associate member since then. In 2011 I was elected to the Directorship of The University Seminars at Columbia, succeeding Professor of Slavic Robert Belknap, my instructor in Literature Humanities when I was a first-year student in the Columbia College, in 1957-58.
Throughout all these developments I have always continued to teach undergraduates and graduate students, and to write articles and books that speak to the matters I take as most important and necessary to discuss. That has led to an odd set of additional appointments: I am as well a Lecturer at the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (since 1998), an adjunct Professor of Science and Religion at New York Theological Seminary (since 2008), and an adjunct professor of both Evolutionary, Ecological and Environmental Biology, and Religion, at Columbia (since 2002).
Against all expectations including my own, I have been able to maintain a fairly constant rate of publication from the days of my post-doctoral fellowships. However, the transition of the early 1990s has meant that these publications ceased to be peer-reviewed and grant-supported, and became instead editorially-reviewed and strictly self-initiated. As a result of this bend in my career path, my CV lists separately these the two kinds of publications, as well as listing separately the books I have edited, written, or co-authored with my wife Amy, whose drawings also inform many of my articles, including this essay.
Please click on the following links to learn more about:
Columbia University Seminars:
Columbia University Center for the Study of Science and Religion: