Dana Lafuente

The soul of the campus

After 25 years at the Max Delbrück Center, Dana Lafuente is leaving. She has made her mark as an administrative coordinator, on Campus Berlin-Buch, and in the Society of Friends, always advocating for the interests and concerns of all employees. Now she plans to do something different: open a mushroom school. Max Delbrück would understand.

Dana Lafuente in 1989: At that time, she wanted to become a vocational teacher of shorthand.

Jufli. That’s what her management trainer Ruedy Baarfuss once called her. The Swiss word denotes someone who can’t be stopped. Who prefers to get things done rather than talk them to death. A bundle of energy that can sometimes explode. “It’s better than having no fire at all, wouldn’t you say?,” asks Lafuente. Her bright eyes, shining out from under closely cropped hair, betray how much she likes to laugh. She has been working at the Max Delbrück Center for 25 years, 10 of which she has spent as a coordinator for several Administrative Directors. She is leaving the research center at the end of the year.

Lafuente was born in Prenzlau. She initially wanted to become a vocational school teacher, and after graduating high school she trained as a clerical assistant. She then began a program in business education with the aim of training stenotypists. “Stenography fascinated me,” she relates. “As beautiful as Arabic script, extremely efficient, and seductively logical.” But it was 1990, the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and stenography was dead. So she studied English and Spanish. And since she had chosen the path of business, she gritted her teeth and added business administration as well. “Once you start something, you don’t just throw it away. I learned that from my mother,” Lafuente says.

Tireless and inspiring

Creativity and efficiency have been her hallmarks ever since. “In every aspect of her job, Dana has always been tireless, dynamic, and proactive, a source of inspiration for all those around her,” says Prof. Detlev Ganten. The founding director of the Max Delbrück Center was by her side for many years. In the Society of Friends, which she has headed since 2008, they achieved many things together. “Her enthusiasm and optimistic approach to difficult tasks were infectious. I can hardly imagine a Campus Buch or a Society of Friends without Dana. She was the soul of the campus, and not only at the Max Delbrück Center. We will miss her.”

After finishing her studies, Lafuente consciously decided not to work in the business world. “I wanted to be somewhere that invested in people, not things,” she said. She got a job as a team assistant at the Max Delbrück Center. “This place really is about people,” she raves. “It’s about creating the conditions in which scientists can do their best work.” And then there were the people from all over the world, the opportunity to speak the languages she had studied. “It was the perfect professional environment for me,” she says. “I’m happy and proud to have been able to spend 25 long years here.”

Insular thinking makes no sense

In every aspect of her job, Dana has always been tireless, dynamic, and proactive, a source of inspiration for all those around her.
Detlev Ganten
Professor Detlev Ganten Founding Director

Her professional career began in the 1990s, a time of great change in Berlin and at Campus Buch as well, where the Max Delbrück Center grew out of the former Academy of Sciences of the GDR. She enjoyed taking part in this process, reorganizing things in an efficient way. As team assistant she participated in the meetings of the research groups, which is where she met Ganten. “I learned everything from him,” she says. “Such as that everything is connected to everything else, and that insular thinking makes no sense.”

After ten years as a team assistant – “a wonderful time” – she became coordinator to the Administrative Directorate: “I wanted to develop further and reach a salary level that accorded more with my level of education.” The early days under Dr. Stefan Schwartze were difficult for her. All her efforts were focused on PoF2, the program-oriented funding system within the Helmholtz Association. And yet her intention had been to implement the suggestions for improvement made by her previous team colleagues. They had given her a tin can full of slips of paper with their wishes for the future: a climbing wall, more child-care, a rooftop café, a beach volleyball court, and much more. But there was no time for that at first. Finally, however, PoF2 was done, and Lafuente got started. She always kept her eye out for “movers and shakers.” “Strategies are important, but you need someone to implement them,” she says. “I don’t just want to design the framework. I want to be active within that framework. And above all, I want to see results.”

Always a monkey on her shoulder

Dana Lafuente

Because she threw herself headlong into everything, her second boss, Cornelia Lanz, one day advised her not to always leave meetings “with a monkey on her shoulder.” “The ‘monkey on the shoulder’ is a task that needs to be done,” Lafuente explains. “I usually had not just one monkey on my shoulder, but a whole horde,” she says, laughing. “But for the most part, I liked the monkeys and I really enjoyed taking care of them.” She says what always mattered most to her was creating the best possible environment for the research scientists and other staff members. “This requires good collaboration between all departments,” she stresses. 

There is now more childcare available, and there is a café too, although not on the roof. A climbing wall didn’t get built, but the CampusVital initiative was launched: together with other organizations on campus and with the support of Techniker Krankenkasse, a joint occupational health management strategy has been implemented. All employees at the campus can use a fitness studio around the clock or take various classes. There are also regular talks on topics such as cancer or back health. 

Putting employees’ interests first

Employees can do anything if you give them the right training and the right tools, but the most important thing is to have confidence that they can do it.
Dana Lafuente
Dana Lafuente Personnel and Corporate Culture

In 2019 Lafuente coordinated the Anti-Harassment Task Force. Nearly 60 employees from all professional groups worked together to develop a strategy for addressing sexual harassment. It quickly became more than that, turning into a policy that sets out what should happen in the event of discrimination, abuse of power, or harassment – and what the Max Delbrück Center can do to prevent such incidents from occurring. Furthermore, in addition to the existing points of contact – the Staff Council, the Women’s Representative, the Complaints Office, the Youth-Trainee Representative, the Disabilities Officer – additional points of contact were established, such as the PhD Office, the Postdoc Office, the Welcome and Family Office, and the Technical Assistant Representatives, in order to make access to advice and support as low threshold as possible. To this day she still receives inquiries from other research centers in the Helmholtz Association about this model project, and she is happy to share her experiences with them.

Another project into which Lafuente has since 2008 poured a lot of her heart and soul ist the Work and Family audit. Together with Gabriele Kollinger, who is in charge of personnel development at the Max Delbrück Center, she has recently developed an action program centered on leadership and personnel policies. They worked closely with management staff to launch a stategy for establishing a leadership culture. At the core of this is empowerment and trust: “Employees can do anything if you give them the right training and the right tools, but the most important thing is to have confidence that they can do it,“ explains Lafuente.

The mysterious kingdom of funga

Lafuente used to spend ten to twelve hours a day at the Max Delbrück Center. Now, in her middle years, she is turning her attention to her second passion: mushrooms. Her eyes light up when she speaks about the lesser-known life form: “People don’t think about the funga kingdom much, and it tends to be overlooked in comparison to flora and fauna.” But that’s undeserved, she says, because fungi actually hold the world together at its core. They form the “world wood web” that connects up individual plants and trees. “The soil is crisscrossed with threads of mycorrhizal fungi. There are 400 meters of these filaments in a single cubic centimeter of dirt,” explains Lafuente. Max Delbrück himself studied a genus of fungus called Phycomyces, recognized by its tiny sphere on a tiny stalk that grows toward the light. If something gets in its way, it grows around it, without ever having touched the obstacle. Delbrück, who received the Nobel Prize for discoveries about viruses, never found out how Phycomyces is able to sense such obstacles.

Lafuente aims to open a mushroom school at Barnim Panorama, a nature park center and agricultural museum to the north of Berlin. She is already offering mushroom advice there, but would like to expand her activities by training “fungus coaches” and taking a creative approach to fungus, such as by developing models for kindergartens and schools.

Getting more out of life

But it wasn’t only her desire for a new start that motivated Lafuente to leave the Max Delbrück Center. Last year both her parents died within three days of each other. In her grief she began to review her life so far and decided that, however much she liked her job, there were certain things she was missing out on: time for the people she cares about – her family, for instance, and the four Ukrainian families that she and her husband welcomed into their vacation home in a village in Brandenburg.

She also needs time for the large garden in the Uckermark region that her parents bequeathed to her – 2,000 fertile square meters of vegetables, apples, pears, berries and walnuts. A sample of the homegrown produce can be found on the conference table in her office: sweet and delicious candied nuts and dried fruit.

Lafuente’s other hobby is dancing with her husband. Once a week the couple attends a dance class – at the moment that’s the only time of the week they get to spend time together. “Isn’t it great when there’s nothing you have to do?” sighs Lafuente. “That’s the nice thing about dancing: I fall into someone’s arms and allow myself to be led.” Her favorite dance is a slow waltz, when their feet move automatically and in perfect harmony . At last, a chance for Jufli to take it easy.

Text: Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig