Jan Kunze

Grieving for Jan Kunze

The MDC mourns the death of Jan Kunze. The Head of Research Funding died on 20 March 2021 at the age of 52. He leaves behind four children. An obituary.

He was smart, say those who worked with him. He was sensitive and attentive, say friends and colleagues. You could have great fun with him. He had a fine, even mischievous sense of humor, say others. He always supported us, say his team and many researchers. And they also say that the great, wonderful, curious, sensitive Jan Kunze carried a deep sadness within him. Fate was not kind to him in recent times.

Jan Kunze is dead. He passed away on 20 March after a routine sugery, aged 52. The news of the abrupt end of our colleague and friend, head of the Research Funding Department, was devastating for many at the Max Delbrück Center and in the German scientific community. It is inconceivable that this wonderful man, who did not allow himself to be beaten down despite all the blows, was so mercilessly torn from life.

Jan loved research and his greatest passion was for neuroscience. Researchers could always rely on his advice and support. For his family, his second wife, who died two years ago, and for his four children from both marriages, he gave his best. He tried to manage his life and be there for others under the most difficult circumstances: as a grieving single parent, and against the backdrop of the Corona pandemic.

Jan came to MDC in 2018. Many of his colleagues at the research center were already familiar with him. "I first met Jan Kunze at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. We were often on the road together on SFB reviews," says Thomas Sommer, Scientific Director of the MDC (interim). "Jan was calm, collected and fair. He would always smooth things over, always mediate. He was a good listener who treated everybody with respect. And he was very constructive. That's why I was also happy to welcome him to the MDC in a new role. His task with us was certainly not easy and the circumstances complicated. Nevertheless, I always experienced him as positive, problem-solving and thoughtful. I would have liked to be able to work with him on many more projects," says Sommer.

Jan looked after his people: "He always wanted to see the positive," says Ioannis Legouras, his deputy. "He gave our team a lot of energy. Just a few days ago, we moved into our new campus offices. We were looking forward to a fresh start: Jan was full of plans." As head of the department Jan developed strategies, showed the direction, but then gave the staff a lot of freedom and let them work on their own initiative, says Ioannis. "He was friendly, calm and fair. When things got difficult, he would always look out for us," is the word from the department. Ioannis Legouras has not only lost an outstanding colleague, but a friend. The two men sometimes went out together after work, and Legouras also visited the Kunzes at home in Wandlitz.

"Jan was a warm-hearted and sensitive person. As head of department, the concerns of his employees always came first," says Heike Graßmann, Administrative Director of MDC. "He was super loyal, highly motivated and very committed. We still had so many plans. We are losing a great employee. Just a few days before his hospital stay, we met for coffee. He had so much positive energy and we talked about his private life in Corona times and the future of the department. We are losing a great employee. The colleagues in his department, the department heads and many colleagues at MDC have expressed deep sadness over the news of his death - Jan Kunze will be greatly missed by all of us.”

Enthusiasm for neuroscience

Jan Kunze was born on 25 March 1968 in Berlin, where he grew up. He studied biology and neurobiology at the Freie Universität, and also in Aarhus and Tucson, Arizona. From 2000 until the end of 2017, Jan worked for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG , German Research Foundation) in Bonn, during which time he also stayed abroad in Israel, Sweden, China, Japan and India, among other places.

He remained connected to the DFG until the end, says Dr Tobias Grimm, head of the Life Sciences Division. "Jan was friends with many of us," says Grimm. "I still remember him as a SFB referee: For me at the time, he was the big man who had to (and did) keep track of the lifted red and yellow cards of those voting in the SFB committee," Grimm says. Jan quickly became an expert in the DFG on the issues of animal experimental research and basic neuroscience, and then Grimm's deputy in charge of the Microbiology, Immunology, Neuroscience Group as well as head of the Neuroscience Team. "His wisdom and knowledge of human nature were invaluable," says Grimm.

But it is above all Jan’s personal side that Grimm remembers: the family man, and a man fascinated by nature, whose doctoral topic was, by the way, the "Scent Perception of Bees". Jan always lived in places with beautiful views of the countryside, says Grimm. That was the case in Bonn and later again in Berlin, where he moved into a house near Lake Wandlitz with his new partner and his two small children. Jan loved his gardens, which he minded passionately, and animals. “With his photo trap, he managed to take exciting night shots of urban wildlife. His great love was ornithology. Be it the breeding eagle owl at the local quarry or bird migration at the Danube delta: Jan captured it all with his observation telescope, his patience and his passion," says Tobias Grimm. Like Jan, many DFG staff members were at the time in the process of starting a family. At gatherings, children were always dashing through the garden. "Many of us - including our children - were close to the Kunzes and their kids. We have lost a great, lovable friend and colleague," says Grimm.

One person who also knew Jan Kunze from their time in Bonn and was friends with him at MDC is James Poulet, PI for neuroscience. "I met Jan at DFG as a junior PI applying for my first grant. My impression was that of an intelligent and knowledgeable referee, someone who would probably immediately spot the weaknesses in my proposal. So I was nervous - but for no reason at all. Jan was enthusiastic, but he also offered constructive criticism. He was fair and supportive. I went home thinking that we could be very reassured if German neuroscience were in Jan Kunze's hands," Poulet recounts. “Mixed with a level-headed and a thoughtful side, he had a friendly and fun personality. You could discuss science and life with him. That's why I couldn't quite believe my luck when he came to MDC. In the last few years, I saw Jan going out of his way to help and advice older and younger scientists at MDC and throughout Berlin."

Martin Lohse persuaded Jan Kunze to move from DFG to the Max Delbrück Center at the end of 2017 as MDC Director. He, too, praises Jan’s services to neuroscience. "It is thanks to him, among others, that this field of science has experienced an upswing in Germany like few others. Jan Kunze did not wait for the applicants, but was in the midst of them, he got involved in the development of programs and taught young researchers how to write proposals. Everyone involved with the DFG knew him as a humorous and often mischievous, knowledgeable, dynamic and conceptually strong person," says Lohse.

Jan's start in Berlin in 2018 was overshadowed by concerns for his beloved wife and by the impossible challenge of holding, strengthening and comforting his young children – even while he himself was inconsolable. Many at MDC were aware of his burden and tried support him. With concern, empathy and respect, sometimes shaken or simply helpless.

We mourn the loss of a wonderful person, a friend and a reliable colleague. Our thoughts are with his family and especially with his children.

Text: Jutta Kramm

There is a book of condolences in the lobby of House 84 and Room 1018 may be used as a mourning room.