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Simon Moller, Ph.D.

Professor of Biological Sciences

St. John's Professor Receives $900,000 Research Grant

Simon Moller, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Sciences in St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a $900,000 research grant from The Research Council of Norway.

The grant supports Dr. Moller's research on mechanisms involved in the onset of Parkinson's Disease. By identifying those molecular and cellular triggers, the research may lead to earlier diagnoses and new forms of treatment. Those stricken with the illness suffer from tremors and other motor difficulties that gradually worsen.

Dr. Moller has researched Parkinson's Disease for many years. He founded the Centre for Organelle Research in Norway, and serves as a part-time professor at the Norwegian Centre for Movement Disorders at Stavanger University Hospital. While there, Dr. Moller gained a real sense of the way patients suffer from the illness. “I was amazed by how poor their quality of life can be,” he said. “And it seemed like there was very little that could be done to help them.”

The experience sparked Dr. Moller’s determination to find more effective ways of diagnosing and treating the illness. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder affecting neurons that enable the brain to generate body movements. When those cells die, patients suffer from tremors, rigidity and diminished spontaneous movement, which may become debilitating.

“The methods for diagnosing and treating the disease have progressed very little since the seventies,” said Dr. Moller. Unlike cancer, Parkinson’s is rarely if ever identified through blood tests. “By the time a case is diagnosed,” Dr. Moller added, “much of the damage is done.”

Through his research, Dr. Moller hopes to uncover “early stage biomarkers. If you can diagnose Parkinson’s in the early stages, you can open up a whole new field of drugs.”

Plants, Dr. Moller explained, are “an excellent model” for research because they possess all but one of the genes that cause Parkinson's in humans. His work also incorporates use of zebra fish and mammalian neurons. “We've merged these three models, which I think makes for a more powerful approach to reaching some answers,” he said. 

The grant Dr. Moller has received will allow the Department of Biological Sciences to employ four postdoctoral researchers, underwrite the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment and create more opportunities for research-based education.

A Shared Desire to “Build Something”

Born and raised in Norway, Dr. Moller attended college and graduate school in the United Kingdom. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biotechnology at the University of Leeds and his master’s degree in biotechnology and engineering at Imperial College London. He returned to the University of Leeds for his Ph.D. in biotechnology.

Dr. Moller taught and conducted research at Rockefeller University, NY; the University of Leicester, UK; and the University of Stavanger, Norway. Interested in returning to the United States, he learned about the research conducted at St. John's. “I’d heard good things about the University, so I contacted the chair of the Biological Sciences department and asked if I could give a seminar.” Later, Jeffrey Fagen, Ph.D., Dean of St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, invited him to join the department’s faculty.

”There's something about the people at St. John’s,” Dr. Moller said. “They all want to build something, and part of my job is to use my expertise to help accomplish that. I founded an internationally recognized research institute from the ground up in four years. I want to do something similar here.”

Fostering that enthusiasm requires superb teaching — in the laboratory as well as the classroom. “We cannot separate teaching from research,” said Dr. Moller. “Students are becoming cleverer all the time. They don’t want to just learn things in a textbook. They want to work in the lab, to go above and beyond.”

Knowing this, he added, faculty “have to be enthusiastic and live the science — to convey the excitement of science directly to today’s students.” That is the kind of enthusiasm he finds at St. John’s. “Our students are ambassadors for our program. They will go out and say they received a great education here.”