Robert Dario Simoni, the Donald Kennedy Chair in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Emeritus, and professor emeritus of biology at Stanford, known for his extraordinary university citizenship, died Friday, Sept. 18, at age 81 at his Palo Alto home following recent surgery.

Robert Simoni at the 2014 Commencement receiving the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for Exceptional Contributions to Stanford from Vice Provost Stephanie Kalfayan. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A researcher whose work focused on the biogenesis, structure and function of cellular membranes, Simoni retired from Stanford in 2013 after 42 years of service as a faculty member, department chair, chair of the Faculty Senate and acting provost in 2012.

Simoni was, according to former Humanities & Sciences Dean Richard Saller, an “extraordinary university citizen” who combined “forthright (and sometimes withering) criticism of the administration with a splendid sense of humor.”

Simoni also was a committed teacher and mentor, known campus-wide for his signature shock of curly white hair. At the end of his last lecture in the introductory Biology 41 class, administrators and fellow faculty members donned white wigs in honor of his well-known sense of humor, while the Stanford Band rocked to “All Right Now.” He had taught that core class since 1972 and estimated in a Stanford Historical Society interview in 2014 that he had taught some 16,000 Stanford students over his career.

In 2014, Simoni was honored with the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for Exceptional Service to Stanford – one of the university’s highest awards – for his efforts “for faculty governance as chair of the University Advisory Board,” for “boundless enthusiasm for teaching” and for “efforts to increase diversity and encourage greater participation in science among underrepresented groups.”

Huge impact

“Bob Simoni had a huge impact on Stanford as a scholar, teacher and administrator,” said Martha Cyert, chair of Stanford’s Department of Biology and the Dr. Nancy Chang Professor of Biology. “Bob was a consummate biochemist: His work provided important insights into cholesterol metabolism, and Bob enjoyed teaching introductory biochemistry to Stanford undergraduates in Bio 41 for more than 40 years.”

Among his students was David Thomas, the William F. Dietrich Professor at the University of Minnesota.

“I was Bob Simoni’s first grad student,” said Thomas. “I met him the week he arrived on campus, which was the week I started grad school. I was a physics major, but Bob taught me all about biochemistry and membrane biology, showing me patience and respect, and became my lifelong mentoring model. After I started my own lab, Bob’s example kept informing my style of doing science – be both rigorous and generous, inspirational and patient. Foster the careers of others, and you will be rewarded many times over.”

Cyert credited Simoni with shaping the biology department and nurturing its growth through the hiring of many current faculty members. Saller and Cyert both noted Simoni’s key role in the recent construction of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Biology Research Building, which added modern laboratory spaces for interdisciplinary research.

Simoni, for instance, was chair of the department when President Marc Tessier-Lavigne first joined Stanford as a faculty member in the early 2000s. Simoni was a joy to work with, Tessier-Lavigne said, and they became good friends.

“To me, Bob stood out as a scientist’s scientist, and a real mensch, marked by his warmth, his generosity of spirit and his integrity,” he said. “I admired his incisive mind and wonderful turn of phrase, his intellectual honesty, and his leadership and devotion to his community.”

Warm and generous

“Most of all, Bob was a warm and generous person – always quick to give you honest feedback with a genuine sense of humor that made even the toughest advice a bit easier to follow,” Cyert said. “Bob spent his entire career at Stanford and truly loved this university. His loss will be keenly felt by many of us on campus.”

In fact, there is little at Stanford that does not bear Simoni’s imprint. For instance, Simoni, an avid Cardinal supporter, organized a program that brought together faculty with football prospects to give the recruits an equal introduction to both academics and athletics. Over the years, Simoni was a sought-after member for campus search committees and on task forces examining issues ranging from athletics and fraternities and sororities to grievance and disciplinary procedures to distance education and academic journals.

Simoni made national news in 1994 as he assumed the position of Faculty Senate chair. He was among faculty advocating for a review of grading policies following reports that suggested grade inflation was rampant on college campuses nationwide. Simoni served on the Faculty Senate for a total of 31 years. Among the other issues that arose while he was senate chair were debates over  a Western Civilization requirement and a Science Core curriculum.

Scholarly contributions

Simoni credited a San Jose high school teacher with stirring his interest in science. He acknowledged floundering for a major at San Jose State, where he pursued his undergraduate degree in biology. He hoped initially to study dentistry but, after failing the dexterity portion of the dentistry aptitude test, he pursued a graduate degree in biochemistry at the University of California, Davis.

Robert Simoni (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

Simoni then served as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate at Johns Hopkins University, working on cell membrane structure and function, before joining the faculty at Stanford in 1971. He was hired by the late Donald Kennedy, who became Stanford president and was a mentor to Simoni who emphasized the importance of teaching.

Simoni’s initial scientific research work at Stanford focused on the energetics of active transport in E. coli bacteria. He also made contributions to the understanding of cholesterol metabolism in mammalian cells and the key regulatory enzyme of cholesterol biosynthesis. His work has implications for the study of heart disease and hardening of the arteries in aging.

In 1998, Simoni was awarded the William C. Rose Award of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for excellence in research and dedication to the teaching and training of scientists. He also was a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health.

During his career, Simoni was involved with the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), serving on its editorial board and as associate editor. With Simoni’s guidance, JBC became the first science journal to appear online, helping to launch a revolution in academic publishing.

Award-winning winemaker

Simoni applied his expertise in biochemistry to his interest in winemaking, an avocation inherited from his Italian family. In 2001, Simoni recalled for Stanford magazine that winemaking was a family ritual centered in his grandfather’s San Jose home. Simoni continued the tradition, winning medals at the California State Fair for Simoni Wine Cellar chardonnays. He shared the hobby with his family, as he did Stanford sporting events and trips to Tahoe.

“It’s a perfect hobby for me,” he told Stanford magazine. “As a scientist, I like understanding the biochemical process of wine fermentation and how you can influence it for the better.”

Simoni is survived by his wife of 59 years, Diane Simoni; his children, Susan Simoni Burk and her husband, Paul; Steven Simoni and his wife, Elizabeth; and David Simoni; and grandchildren Steve Burk, Shelby Burk, Dante Simoni, Sabrina Simoni and Sara Simoni. Due to the pandemic, there are no immediate plans for a celebration of life.