Robert attended public schools, and majored in physics at Columbia University, where he graduated from the College in 1961. After that he received Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences from Brandeis University in 1966.
Robert was 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.
Robert remains at Columbia as a Professor of Biological Sciences, and also serves as Director of The University Seminars. Robert is also a member of faculty 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 intersection of science and subjectivity, coupled with the gift of an endowment from College alumnus Harvey Krueger, 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. His most recent book is "The Course of Nature", a book of drawings by the artist Amy Pollack, accompanied by his short explanatory essays.
On December 23, 1961 Robert married Amy Louise Steinberg, with whom he has a daughter Marya.