Bernd (Berni) R.T. Simoneit (1937-2023)

August 03, 2023

It is with deep sadness that we report that Bernd R.T. Simoneit, an impressively productive and prolific organic and environmental biogeochemist and a Professor Emeritus of Oregon State University, died at his home in Corvallis on July 23, 2023.

Berni was born in Germany and immigrated to America as a young boy with his parents and his sister to settle in Rhode Island. He started his college education in New England, receiving his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University (1965). He then took on a research position at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley (1966-1973). A chance encounter with Geoff Eglinton, who was visiting the Laboratory, led to his earning his PhD in organic geochemistry from the University of Bristol (UK) in 1975. He subsequently held positions at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the University of California, Los Angeles (1976-1981), and the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences of Oregon State University (1981-2002). In addition to these permanent positions, he had visiting scientist positions at the California Institute of Technology (1965-2002), Tokyo Metropolitan University (1992), the Centre d'Investigacio I Desenvolupament, C.S.I.C., Barcelona, (1996-1997), Hokkaido University, Japan (2002), Florida International University (2003-2004), and the King Saud University, Riyadh (2008-2015). The overarching theme uniting Berni's studies at these multiple institutions was his intense curiosity about the nature of the chemical signatures that different lifeforms have left on our planet, a curiosity that led him to discover an impressively broad suite of molecular and isotopic biomarkers.

Berni's achievements in organic and environmental biogeochemistry were indeed many and broad in scope. He was among the pioneers in unraveling the complex information that is archived in the organic matter in the soils, sediments, and rocks on the planet. He provided important interpretative tools for understanding the processes of the evolution of life on Earth and its legacy messages. Thus, he was one of the developers of the biomarker concept and perhaps one who identified more of these compounds for the scientific community. In addition to studies on the Earth, when he was at the University of California at Berkeley, he was one of the small group scientists selected by NASA to investigate the composition of the Apollo 11 lunar samples for evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

He applied the biomarker concept to samples from more than 250 different sites around the world, both on land and at sea (see map in the Figure). Bernie's international perspective is one of the main characteristics of his activities, which was also based on very pleasant relationships with the scientists with whom he worked. He established collaborations with scientists of all nationalities and welcomed opportunities to participate in field sampling expeditions. He personally collected samples for study from trips that ranged from Deep Sea Drilling Project cruises to visits to all seven continents and especially the more isolated parts of the Far East, the Americas, and Africa. He truly enjoyed exploring the world!

He not only investigated biomarkers looking into the past, but also in the present. He described a multitude of them for understanding the source inputs that generate aerosols and the organic matter present in them. One of his main papers on this subject is the description of levoglucosan as an indicator of cellulose in biomass combustion. Currently, this is one of the most investigated compounds. This biomarker is just one example of his landmark contributions to aerosol chemistry. Several of these papers, including the one on levoglucosan, have been cited more than 1,600 times in the scientific literature, which is a clear indication of the great impact of Berni's contributions. Overall, his papers have been cited more than 54,000 times (Google Scholar).

The significance of Berni's many scientific contributions and achievements have been recognized and rewarded by his colleages multiple times. Among these, he received the Best Paper of the Year Award from the Organic Geochemistry Division of the Geochemical Society twice – in 1977 for "Diterpenoid compounds and other lipids in deep-sea sediments and their geochemical significance" and in 1981 for "Thermal alteration of Cretaceous black shale by basaltic intrusions in the eastern Atlantic, II: Effects on bitumen and kerogen", both published in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. He also twice received the Haagen-Smit Prize from Elsevier for an article published in Atmospheric Environment. First, in 2001 for "Source apportionment of airborne particulate matter using organic compounds as tracers" and second in 2007 for "Organic matter in the troposphere – II. Natural background of biogenic lipid matter in aerosols over the United States". In recognition of his contributions to a broad range of earth science, the American Geophysical Union honored him by naming as an AGU Fellow in 2003. Similarly, the European Association of Geochemistry named him a Geochemistry Fellow in 2006. Finally, the Organic Geochemistry Division of the Geochemical Society awarded him the prestigious Alfred Treibs Medal in 2006 for his outstanding contributions to the field of organic geochemistry.

Many individuals have scientifically appreciated and benefitted from being able to interact and collaborate with Berni. Among these, one of us (JG) had the opportunity to work with him as a postdoctoral investigator during 1983 in the formative stage of his career. This extraordinary experience provided the foundations of many scientific ideas that he would later put into practice in his own work. This is but one example of the positive impact that Berni had on a wide array of other investigators, both junior and well-established. Like so many others, both of us enjoyed and learned much from our interactions with Berni, whether in the laboratory or in the field.

We scientists working in organic geochemistry and environmental chemistry will miss his contributions, ideas, good humor, friendship, and inspiration, and more than anything, we will miss Berni Simoneit.

Joan O. Grimalt, Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Barcelona

Phil Meyers, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Category: In Memoriam