Science does not take place in an ivory tower, but within a strict legal framework. At the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC), seven staff members headed by Kirstin Bodensiek make sure that everything is exactly right when the time comes to sign cooperation agreements and commercialize research discoveries. Bodensiek and her team also advise research labs, administrative departments and the Board of Directors on other legal issues, such as construction and procurement law matters.
The 47-year-old Berlin native studied law at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, specializing in labor law. After graduating Bodensiek took a job at a Deutsche Bahn subsidiary. She worked there for 14 years before joining the MDC. In addition to the interdisciplinary collaboration, what she likes about working at the Center is that its scientists are always willing and eager to explain their research.
Something new every day
How long have you been at the MDC?
I started at the MDC on the same day as Professor Heike Graßmann: October 1, 2018, which is almost exactly three years ago. Heike Graßmann, our Administrative Director, introduced me at her first town hall meeting.
You previously worked for 14 years at the Deutsche Bahn’s in-house insurance broker. What made you make the switch?
I had worked for my former company for 14 years, so I was simply ready for something new. I also wanted to work in a large company again and have lots of colleagues around me. My former company in Bad Homburg had 130 employees, but after I moved to Berlin to manage the capital city’s branch, there were only seven of us. After a while I knew all the issues in and out, there was never anything new, and nothing could surprise me.
That must have been a big change for you, going from an insurance broker to a research center?
I was in the Construction Department, so I always interacted with other professions, especially with engineers. My work is still interdisciplinary. We in the Legal Department have contact with all other departments and work a lot with scientists. That makes working here very exciting and means I experience something new every day.
Information gathering is vital
What new areas of law did you have to familiarize yourself with?
I hadn’t worked on public law issues before, such as matters related to grants and funding, so I had to familiarize myself with that field. But that wasn’t a problem. Many people starting out in their careers are hesitant to change jobs because they think they won’t be able to handle the technical aspects of a new position. But you can catch up on all that. The main thing is to get along well with people, because a lot of our work involves talking to colleagues and other experts and gathering information. When special topics arise, we work with external law firms that specialize in areas like labor law, construction law or animal welfare law.
What does the Legal Department actually do?
We are of course first and foremost there to support scientific research. In this respect we absolutely regard ourselves as a service unit. We want to ensure a good working environment for everyone at the MDC, and we don’t want to dictate to anyone what can and cannot be done. We provide advice, we clarify risks, we try to shape things. This is especially the case when it comes to cooperation agreements with other institutions or industry partners, to licensing agreements and to non-disclosure agreements. We also become involved when it is necessary to specify who owns research results and how proceeds from research are to be divided. We not only work very closely with the scientists, but also with the Technology Transfer Office and the Research Funding Department. In addition, we advise the Board of Directors on legal issues and are responsible for overseeing foreign trade controls.
What does foreign trade controls entail?
The Federal Republic of Germany has committed to not exporting anything that may be misused abroad for military purposes or contribute to severe human rights violations. For the MDC as a research institution this means that we have to be very careful about what knowledge we disseminate or what equipment we export and where – for example, microscope components could also be incorporated into weapons. The Legal Department therefore monitors everything the Center exports to see if there is any potential for misuse.
Averting liability risks
Is compliance an important keyword in this context?
Compliance means nothing other than acting in accordance with the rules, so compliance affects all areas of the MDC. We are currently working on a compliance concept that sets out our goals for compliance. Going forward we will also offer appropriate training to staff.
Can you tell us a little about the compliance goals?
To ensure that every action taken at and on behalf of the MDC complies with the relevant laws and regulations, we want to provide staff with a reliable framework for action and thus establish legal and process certainty. This also includes ensuring that staff have adequate access to the relevant information at all times. We want to create transparency about potential risks, ensure data protection, avoid reputational damage and ultimately protect the Board of Directors from liability risks.
What do you especially appreciate about the MDC?
The international flair, this beautiful campus, the incredible open-mindedness and the collegial cooperation. Lawyers tend not to want to share their knowledge, preferring to keep it to themselves. After all it is their unique selling point. I’ve noticed a great openness among colleagues at the MDC and in the Helmholtz Association. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Legal Department asked researchers as part of the Legal Meets Science program to give us insight into their work. The scientists were totally open to that, and I really hope we can resume the program again at some point. If we understand what they do, we can do a much better job of taking that into account when we draw up contracts.
Getting through the crisis together
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected the Legal Department’s work?
It most certainly has! I worked on the Crisis Task Force and was really impressed with how quickly we achieved results in close coordination with the Board of Directors and all department heads. We listened to the news on the radio in the morning, held meetings during the day and flexibly adapted our measures accordingly. We had lots of discussions, sometimes very critical ones, but we didn’t get into arguments about what to do. People were very committed, felt a sense of responsibility and voluntarily took on tasks. It was an exciting experience, and there was great teamwork and a very concentrated working atmosphere.
Are things now back to normal?
Not quite yet. We are still dealing with issues related to the pandemic, but not so much at the moment. Our general way of working together has changed somewhat. I was very surprised at how smoothly our department and many others functioned during remote working. Because we relied on video conferencing, email and phone to communicate, many colleagues were even more accessible than if we were all tied up in meetings on-site. But during the lockdown I did miss direct interaction and informal conversations away from official meetings. Currently we are combining virtual and face-to-face work, which is perfect for me. When I need to focus and delve deep into something, I like to work undisturbed at home. Otherwise I really enjoy being in the office.
Was this how you thought your job was going to be when you decided to study law?
No. I did always want to work with people in a company setting. Yet I thought law was about knowing what’s allowed and what’s not. But there’s much more to it than that: It’s mainly about informing yourself thoroughly and weighing arguments against each other. Luckily, law school prepares you very well for that. I also draw many parallels between my work and sports.
“We are a great team”
What sports do you play?
I head up the volleyball section in a local sports club and actively play indoor and beach volleyball, but I also attend to membership administration and organizational issues.
So you would call yourself a team player?
I’d definitely answer that in the affirmative. That also applies to my interactions with the staff in my department. It’s important to me that everyone in my team feels a sense of responsibility for the tasks they take on, and that they have scope to make their own decisions. It’s much like sports: The best team is not the team with the best individual players, but the team that plays the best together. We’re a great team, we are strong at all positions, and we complement each other very well.
What tasks are currently in the pipeline?
Due to the organizational restructuring of the MDC and the new appointments to management positions, a lot is in flux at present. The Legal Department is often involved in those areas where responsibilities overlap. Given the fact that scientists work with research data that are subject to rigorous legal requirements, the issue of data protection law has also grown in importance. And it is becoming more and more important as digitalization proceeds. The Data Protection Officer joined our department on August 1, 2021.
What is particularly important to you?
It’s very important that the Legal Department is perceived by the research labs as a service unit and can act accordingly. And that we give quick and professional feedback to them. Some people may think things can be handled informally among friends, but contracts are necessary in case there is a falling out. Friendships can break up, but pacta sund servanda – contracts must be honored.
Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig conducted the interview.