Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meeting with Biology Department Chair Robert Simoni

On November 19, 2009 I met with Professor Robert Simoni. Professor Simoni is also currently the Chair of the Biology Department. Professor Simoni was born and raised in San Jose and attended San Jose State University as an undergrad. He wanted to attend Stanford but his parents couldn’t afford it and he was not offered any financial aid. There were merit based scholarships but he did not get one. At San Jose State, Professor Simoni bounced around between majors. He ended up majoring in biology and chemistry and considered attending dentistry school but failed the dexterity test. He also considered being a high school science teacher like his father but instead decided to attend UC Davis as a PhD student in biochemistry. After UC Davis, he completed a post-doc at Johns Hopkins University. He then came to Stanford University as a tenure track assistant professor in 1971 and has been here ever since. Professor Simoni loves his job and for almost 40 years he has been excited to get to work every day.

Professor Simoni likes to be very involved with the Department and believes there is no better department on earth. The Department has a strong teaching culture which came from former Chair and former Stanford President, Donald Kennedy. Professor Simoni believes it is a great privilege to be a part of the Biology Department and gets great satisfaction from being very involved. He has been Chair for over 15 years spread over his tenure. He takes the position of Chair very seriously and works very hard. Professor Simoni believes the position of Chair is more of a management position than that of a leadership position. The Department is very democratic and important decisions are decided by a faculty voting process. Professor Simoni believes his role as Chair is to manage this process and that his biggest job is that of a convener. He is also very in touch with what is going on outside of the Department in the broader University and acts as a connector.

Professor Simoni serves on several committees including the VPUE Governing Group, the Provost’s Budget Committee, and the Faculty Advisory Board. He also sits on the Faculty Senate and has been on it more years than any other living person. He immensely enjoys being a part of the Faculty Senate as it allows him to meet many interesting people and learn what is going on throughout the University. Professor Simoni served as Chair of the Faculty Senate for one year.

Professor Simoni has watched the Biology Department more than double in size during his time. He notes that coordinating the curriculum has become an increasing challenge and managing the Department is like managing a big business. The Biology Department is one of the biggest departments on campus. It is easily the biggest department among the natural science departments. The Department has grown in part because there is enormous funding available for life science research. In addition, many scientists from other disciplines such as chemistry, computer science, and physics, are beginning to work on biological questions in which they can harness their expertise to find answers.

Professor Simoni’s most exciting research project was related to regulating cholesterol metabolism which is strong correlated with coronary artery disease. Professor Simoni was very involved with this research but did not work on the clinical side. For 60 years there was a public health initiative to get people to lower their cholesterol levels through dietary control and while this was well intentioned, it was actually misguided since blood cholesterol cannot be controlled by eating habits. The level of blood cholesterol is kept within a narrow range by a complicated biochemical pathway. Professor Simoni spent significant time studying this pathway and today there is a class of drugs known as statins that regulate the pathway. One example of a statin is Lipitor, which is made by Pfizer and generates $12 billion in annual income. Multiple trials have shown that Lipitor lowers cholesterol and reduces heart attack frequency by 30%.

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