About the Research Cluster

The mission of the Research Cluster for Science and Subjectivity (RCSS) is to provide undergraduates with the experience of taking responsibility for their own work as future scientists and physicians who will practice with a more complete understanding of their fields and of whom they care for.

We do this by providing stipends for students who will propose and carry out their own projects involving aspects of science, subjectivity and service. We envision future generations of scientists, physicians and other science-grounded professionals building their careers in realization of a more complete human experience.

Together, RCSS undergraduate interns currently explore:

  • Spirituality and the arts in end of life care

  • The role of race in how people experience healthcare

  • Ethics and implications of genetics in healthcare

The first and only program of its kind at Columbia University, RCSS is led entirely by undergraduate students under the direction of Cluster Leader Dr. Robert Pollack. The experience of leading a project or developing a class has allowed students to investigate academic issues while developing real-world skills and providing the chance to impact their communities.

The RCSS has its roots in the Center for the Study of Science and Religion, which began in AY99-00 with a startup grant from the office of the Provost. The idea for it emerged from a confluence of two events, one personal and the other political. I had just agreed to give the Schoff Lectures for The University Seminars on a topic of my choice. I chose to consider my own religious life as a scientist in those lectures, which have since been published by Columbia University Press as “The Faith of Biology and The Biology of Faith”. In that decision, I saw that I needed a place for further discussion, and so I decided to create the CSSR for that purpose. 

The political reason went back more than a century. My wife Amy’s great-grandmother had owned a large farm in what is now Slovakia. This farm was appropriated first by Hungarian fascists in the Anschluss when the region was called the Slovak Republic, then by the Nazis in World War II, then by the Soviets with the establishment of the Czech Soviet Socialist Republic in 1945. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the division of the C.S.S.R. into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 1990s, I was determined to capture some recognition of our family’s lost connection to that farm. So in picking the name for my center, I chose one that carried the same initials as the Soviet satellite, the C.S.S.R. Try googling either CSSR or C.S.S.R., and you will get the CSSR first and then, only very much thereafter, the Czech Soviet Socialist Republic. 

The CSSR has undertaken many adventures in its short history. These have given it many shapes and addresses, as one door has opened or another closed. Some of these doors have been physical links to neighboring institutions and centers, while others have been more abstract portals, bringing the CSSR to many different ways of pondering the intersection of the natural world with the difficult task of knowing how to act well in any given situation. 

The CSSR’s first location outside of the Department of Biological Sciences was a set of desks in a big room in Low Library. At various times thereafter it was linked to and located in the Department of Religion, the Martin Luther King building of The Riverside Church, Knox Hall of The Union Theological Seminary, and the Hogan Hall offices of the Earth Institute. 

With Earth Institute affiliation came a capacity to put up our own CSSR website, to offer a novel series of public CSSR seminars and symposia, and to create field-work programs with neighboring communities. In that period the Earth Institute made it possible for the CSSR to bring on board Cynthia Peabody as Associate Director and Miranda Hawkins as Administrator. Their work, and their mentoring of our many student interns, maintained the CSSR for many years, and led to our website’s archive of public events, including a number of broadly interdisciplinary, well-attended symposia. 

Beginning in AY14-15, the CSSR relocated from the Earth Institute to the Center for Science and Society, where it has been assigned a place as a Research Cluster. In order to keep at least a symbolic link to the CSSR, this new configuration has given us the name “Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity,” or RCSS. 

All RCSS programs will be co-created with student interns and volunteers, and managed by them, as in the CSSR’s initial years. The differences from 1999 will be large, however. 

Our student programs will be funded from the gifts of friends. Most wonderfully, among these gifts is an endowment from Harvey Krueger College ’51, Law ’54. The yield from that endowment has supported our students in their work and it will continue to do so in the future. 

RCSS student projects already underway will continue speak to the ways that I have myself changed in the past fifteen years, taught as I have been by my colleagues and my students, to think self-reflectively about my own priorities in asking that initial question that forms the agenda of the CSSR: if scientific data cannot answer the question of what is the good and the right thing to do in any given situation, where else but by inward self-reflection can the answer be found? 

I opened this essay with a story of the CSSR’s origins in the history of what was the late and unlamented C.S.S.R. Let me close with a quote from Vaclav Havel, the first President of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, from his 1979 book, “The Power of the Powerless.” 

“A genuine, profound, and lasting change for the better – as I shall attempt to show – can no longer result from the victory (were such a victory possible) of any traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and to each other, and to the universe.”

By Dr. Pollack, Director of the RCSS

Donations to the RCSS will help us to bring innovative new programs, seminars, speakers and projects to you through our interdisciplinary, inter-school, collaborative forum. 

Even a small amount of money can make a big impact on the future. That is the power of an endowment as was articulated by the Director of the RCSS Professor Robert Pollack on the podcast he did with Edge:

"We do have structures that value the future over current success.  The idea of an endowment is perhaps an expandable idea: the more you have, the more you can set aside in a de facto endowment to stabilize the present so that the future doesn't collapse on us.  With a gift from a friend of an endowment of my own, I run a program called the Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity. The premise of it is this, I will pay an undergraduate a stipend if he or she will propose a project that involves science, subjective self-awareness, and service to others. They will own the project, and I will help them.  They overwhelm me with their creativity and intelligence, because they have now been liberated to be who I was when I was seventeen at Columbia College—a smart kid with somebody who is asking what they think." 

You too can be a part of creating a better tomorrow by offering your help in ensuring this program is able not only to continue, but also to grow.  Your assistance will provide students the ability to pursue their own projects and ideas for years to come, allowing the problems of the future to be identified and solved as they arise. 

If you have any questions about donations or would like more information about how you can help support RCSS, please email the Director, Professor Pollack. 

To donate by mail, please send donations checks made out to Columbia University with RCSS as the memo line to: 

RCSS c/o Professor Robert Pollack Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University, MC: 2419 New York, NY 10027 

Contributions to the RCSS are deductible for income tax purposes. Thank you again for your support!

The American scholar and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said “We are suffused with knowing.  It is not enough to know what we see.  It is necessary to see what we know.”


Look at the bottom of this page.  Here we can both see colors, and know them.  When we see and know the same colors at one time, it is easy to read them off.  But when we see one color and know another at the same time, it makes us pause, as we think which it is we wish to say, the color we see or the name we read.  


This gives us a way to experience our minds at work: seeing colors and using languages to name them, are quite different matters.  If we do not know a written language, it is much easier to say the names of the colors in our own language, even if they spell out the names of other colors.


This is the intersection of science and subjectivity.  Our brains interpret the visual input, both the colors of the words and the words themselves, and get puzzled when there is a disconnect.  However, we can only register the disconnect for languages we are familiar with, what may puzzle one brain will just look like colorful symbols to another.  

Bob Pollack, RCSS Director

RCSS Journal



Read more about courses that were developed by RCSS scholars and advisory board members.

[Ongoing Project] At Your Service

The At Your Service Volunteer Program connects Columbia and Barnard students to the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center through a unique volunteer experience: volunteers are expected to both assist staff as necessary and spend one-on-one time as companions to long-term care residents. At Your Service hosts biweekly reflection sessions to share volunteer experiences, article discussions, educational presentations, and talks by guest speakers discussing relevant topics with regards to palliative care, healthcare demographics, communication, grieving, and more.

Recent Publication

Glass Half Full or Empty: Illuminating the Human Transcriptome

Theodore Nelson
Dennis Zhang
Sophia Sorid
Timothy Chang
Neil Bajaj
Joseph Viola
Lauren Heckelman
Robert Pollack


November 18, 2022

RCSS Lunch at Faculty House

Look at the highlights from the RCSS lunches that took place at Faculty House (11/3 & 11/18)! Members of the advisory board and current scholars united to discuss ongoing and potential projects, emerging ideas in the field of science, and all that entails student life!