Robert Simoni, Cellular Membrane Biochemist, Dies at 81

Simoni spent more than four decades at Stanford University as a teacher, researcher, and administrator in the university’s biology department.

Amanda Heidt
Amanda Heidt
Sep 25, 2020
Robert Simoni
Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Robert Simoni, a biochemist at Stanford University whose research helped illustrate how cholesterol is metabolized by mammalian cells, died September 18 at age 81 after undergoing a recent surgery.

Simoni spent much of his professional career working at Stanford, first as a researcher and later as chair of the biology department, chair of the Faculty Senate, and acting provost, before retiring in 2013. His scientific contributions earned him a Fulbright Fellowship and a Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), while his administrative work was acknowledged with one of Stanford’s highest awards, the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for Exceptional Contributions to Stanford.

“We have a large department, about 60 faculty members, and I think I’ve had at least 30 emails passed through. Everybody has a very personal story to tell about how Bob touched them,” Martha Cyert, the current chair of Stanford’s biology department, tells The Scientist. “He recruited a lot of us when he was chair of the department, and he was just so knowledgeable. You never felt hesitant about coming to Bob when you had a problem.”

Born in San Jose, California, in 1939, Simoni credited an “unusually inspirational” high school science teacher for his initial interest in science, according to a 2014 interview with the Stanford Historical Society. He attended San Jose State College, where he majored in biology. Initially, Simoni struggled to find his niche, considering dentistry before he failed the required dexterity test. Having enjoyed his biochemistry classes at San Jose State, Simoni completed a PhD in biochemistry at the University of California, Davis, studying the synthesis of fatty acids in plants.

Following his graduation in 1966, Simoni worked for several years researching the structure and function of cell membranes at Johns Hopkins University, first as a postdoc and later as a research associate. 

In 1971, he returned to California to join the faculty at Stanford University, where he taught introductory biochemistry to more than 16,000 students over the next four decades. In an interview with the Stanford Daily ahead of his retirement at 74, Simoni said, “teaching that class has sustained me the entire [41] years I’ve been at Stanford.” At the end of his final lecture, he received a sendoff from the Stanford Marching Band, flanked by colleagues who had affectionately donned wigs emblematic of Simoni’s signature curly, white hair.

Robert Simoni receives a surprise at the end of his final introductory biochemistry lecture after teaching the class for 41 years.
stanford university

As a researcher, Simoni is most well-known for his studies of cholesterol, a critical component of mammalian cell membranes. “Bob was very much a basic scientist looking for fundamental information, but some of his biggest contributions are understanding these key proteins that are involved in making cholesterol and all the different mechanisms that lead to their regulation,” Cyert says. 

Simoni’s work helped show that the production of cholesterol in mammalian cells is controlled by regulating both the synthesis and the degradation of the first enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway, 3-hydroxy-3-methyl-glutaryl-CoA reductase. When these systems become dysregulated, imbalances in cholesterol production that cause health problems such as cardiovascular disease can result.

After publishing many of his papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Simoni became a member of the editorial board and later served as an associate editor. In the early 1990s, he helped the journal transition from a print publication to a digital format, the first journal to do so, ushering in a new era of academic publishing.

Later in his career, Simoni also began to take on administrative duties. As chair of the biology department, he was involved in the hiring of new faculty and played a key role in the building of both the Gilbert Biological Sciences Building and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Biology Research Building, both of which house the department today. In addition, Simoni served as the principal investigator on an NIH-funded grant that paid for training for the department’s graduate students for more than 30 years. “Those are a lot of work,” Cyert tells The Scientist. “I took over for him, so I am uniquely qualified to say what a great job he did running that.”

In 1994, Simoni became the chair of the Faculty Senate, a group he was a part of for more than three decades. As a member, he pushed for grading policy reform after a nationwide reckoning with widespread college grade inflation, debated the teaching of western civilization courses as a requirement, and oversaw a science core curriculum reform.

Speaking to the Stanford Daily ahead of his retirement at age 74, Simoni reflected back on his long career. “When I first started, it was traditional that people retired at the age of 65—in fact, it was mandatory. I never really thought I’d work this long, but I have in large part because I enjoy teaching so much.”

Simoni is survived by his wife of 59 years, Diane Simoni, his three children, and five grandchildren.