How many upheavals fit in a lifetime? If Dr. Gudrun Erzgräber is any example to go by, one can reinvent oneself over and over again. Erzgräber, who celebrates her 80th birthday today, has lived through many changes in the political and above all professional spheres: She was a radiation researcher, a technical translator, a science manager, an entrepreneur, and – on the side – a passionate Trabi rally driver. She was successful in the GDR, in Russia, and in the united Germany. She also left a lasting mark on the scientific hub of Buch.
Gudrun Erzgräber was born in Eberswalde in 1939, the year World War II began. She grew up there and in the smaller Brandenburg town of Lychen. In 1958, after completing her Abitur, she started to study physics and nuclear physics – something that was still uncommon for women in the GDR at that time – first in Berlin and later in Dresden. While working as a research associate at the Central Institute for Nuclear Research of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR in Rossendorf near Dresden, she continued her studies, earning a degree in engineering pedagogy in 1966, before becoming qualified as a translator of English physics texts in 1968.
In 1968 also came an important change of location. Erzgräber returned to Berlin, and began her research at the Central Institute for Molecular Biology (ZIM) in Buch. In 1973 she earned her doctorate on the topic of “Inactivation of Bacteriophages and Attempts at Theoretical Interpretation.” To offset the many hours she spent in the lab, she chose an exciting and sporty hobby: Erzgräber competed in car races that pitted untuned Trabis against one another and even won prizes in the early 1970s.
Research in Russia
Soon another big change occurred: Erzgräber accepted a position in Russia, where from 1976 to 1983 she built up a radiobiological laboratory at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna. These were defining years. While there, she met and collaborated with the Russian geneticist Nicolai Timofeeff-Ressovsky. Their shared experience of working in Buch created a bond: From the late 1920s to 1945, Timofeeff-Ressovsky had worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin-Buch, publishing in 1935 – together with Max Delbrück, the namesake of the MDC, and Karl Günter Zimmer – a seminal paper in genetics entitled “On the Nature of Gene Mutation and Gene Structure,” also known as the “Three-Man Work” or “Green Pamphlet.”
In 1984 Erzgräber moved back to Berlin-Buch. But after an accident, she was unable to work in a lab. Erzgräber had to reinvent herself. So she began, reluctantly at first, but then with greater élan, her second career, this time as a science manager. Erzgräber became head of the scientific secretariat of the director of the ZIM, and then in 1987 deputy director and research associate in the newly established Radiobiology Department at the Central Institute for Cancer Research in Buch.
From the lab to the managerial ranks
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, and after the closing of the Institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR in 1991 and the related recommendations of the German Council of Science and Humanities, she was forced – like many others – to reorient herself. Here she was able to draw on all her experience, including her knowledge of the location. Erzgräber played an active role in setting up the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). In 1992 she was named head of location management at the Berlin-Buch campus. She remained in this position – now holding the title of managing director – even after the spin-off into the MDC-initiated company BBB Management GmbH Campus Berlin-Buch in 1995. In this role, she helped set up the biotechnology park and was responsible for the commercial development of the campus. She managed and promoted the campus for twelve years until her retirement. Erzgräber received the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin (2009) and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2008) for her special contributions. “We at the MDC and the research hub of Buch owe her a great deal. We warmly congratulate Dr. Erzgräber and wish her all the best on her 80th birthday,” says MDC Board of Directors Thomas Sommer and Heike Graßmann.