For Simon Geir Møller, Ph.D., education and academic research share a fundamental truth: both build knowledge. “It is like building a wall, you contribute a brick here and a brick there,” in collaboration with many others, he observed. “The main objective is to contribute to the greater whole.”
Dr. Møller was recently appointed St. John’s University’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and assumes his duties on July 1. He joined the faculty of St. John’s in 2011 as a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences; two years later, he was appointed the department’s Graduate Director. In 2014, he became Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Research, and the following year he assumed the role of Senior Vice Provost. Since last year, he has served as Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.
In 1992, Dr. Møller earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Biotechnology from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, which he followed with a Master of Science degree in the same subject from the University of London at Imperial College. He returned to the University of Leeds, earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Plant Molecular Biology in 1998. Dr. Møller also studied Management and Employment Law at the University of Stavanger, Norway, in 1995.
After eight years at St. John’s, Dr. Møller is confident he has found a home. Originally from Norway, and trained as a plant molecular biologist and subsequently as a neurobiologist, his academic career has taken him from his home country to the United Kingdom and eventually to New York City.
In 2010, while vacationing in the city with his family, Dr. Møller sent an email to Ales Vancura, Ph.D., Professor and Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences, asking if he could give a seminar at St. John’s. “I thought I would explore some opportunities,” he recalled.
Walking across the Great Lawn for the first time, Dr. Møller found himself in the grip of an “interesting, content feeling” that he initially found difficult to articulate but now understands. “It is because of the people here. The students and employees at St. John’s who live the mission make St. John’s unique.”
He likens his experience at St. John’s to that of life in Norway. “There is respect for all walks of life. That is the mentality. The mail carrier is respected as much as the neurosurgeon, because society is built upon many individuals who contribute equally as part of a well-functioning whole.”
Dr. Møller gave his seminar and was soon offered a tenured professorship in the Department of Biological Sciences. One of his first professional accomplishments at St. John’s was securing a $900,000 research grant from the Research Council of Norway, which supported his research on identifying mechanisms involved in the onset of Parkinson's disease.
Since he was 18, Dr. Møller has not stayed anywhere more than five years, and when his wife asked him if they should start packing boxes a couple of years ago, he told her no.
“This really is a special place. And I think when you believe in what St. John's really stands for, what we do every day, and its mission, it makes it more than a job.”
“I love the University’s mission,” Dr. Møller stressed. “The fact that we offer excellent education to students, many of whom would not have the opportunity elsewhere. It is not based on who you are or your backgound. It is based on your willingness to work hard, to be committed, and to be challenged—so we can help you be successful and contribute to society and the greater good.”
In his time at St. John’s, Dr. Møller has witnessed an exponential growth in its academic excellence, which he attributes to Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John’s. “He sets the tone,” Dr. Møller explained. “Academics are what drive a university. We need good professors who engage our students. We have to have a good learning environment. We must have the degree programs that our students require to succeed as they enter the workforce.”
Dr. Møller is excited about the impact the St. John’s community has on young minds. “We educate a continuing cohort of students who contribute in a positive way, not just by knowing their subject area, but by going out into the world and being decent, well-rounded, reflective, good citizens. That is so important.”
As Provost, Dr. Møller’s schedule no longer permits him to teach, something he clearly will miss. “I love teaching,” he stressed. “That moment when a student says, ‘Ah, I get it,’ is the most rewarding feeling.” While he may not be able to teach, he is still heavily involved in scholarly research. It is an endeavor, he says “that will keep me grounded and allow me to mentor students.”
The qualities that set St. John’s students apart from those at other institutions are their stamina and zeal for service, Dr. Møller noted. At convocations and other special academic events, he enjoys listening to student speakers tell their stories. “When I hear from students and how they successfully progress throughout their years at St. John’s, I am always so impressed and simply amazed by their many accomplishments. It happens because faculty care, and St. John’s creates the environment. However, in the end it comes down to the students, and our students really want to make a difference and have an impact on the world.”
Dr. Møller intends to be strategic and proactive in his new role and stresses that his approach will be collaborative. “We have an obligation to provide our students with innovative and flexible educational pathways that are engaging and that provide experiential learning opportunities, such as research projects with faculty and internships. So many of our faculty perform groundbreaking research together with students and we must expand on this, allowing more students access to this high-impact practice. We will also implement new strategic partnerships to allow students increased internship opportunities,” he noted, adding that the world is changing rapidly and that it is paramount that we are intentional in our actions, that we stay ahead, and act accordingly.
Although the higher education landscape is constantly changing and can be unpredictable at times, Dr. Møller adds, “One thing is for sure: if you keep doing the same thing over and over again you will always get the same outcome. Therefore, this is not an option. We are going to be innovative and think new—but one cannot move this forward alone. It requires a team effort, and at St. John´s we are a team.”