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Navigating Historic Changes

Ingrid Grummt (DKFZ)

Ingrid Grummt started her career as a biologist in East Germany, earning a Ph.D. from Humboldt University in East Berlin in 1970. In East Germany in the 1970s, women were welcome in the lab. But when Grummt and her family fled west in 1972, she learned that attitudes about women there were not the same.

"In retrospect, I can advise my students because I made every mistake." --Ingrid Grummt

Although Grummt is reticent about her family's escape, she is straightforward about what happened once she, her husband, and their 3-year-old daughter arrived in West Germany: Her husband was hired immediately for a 3-year position at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, but Grummt had to write grants to fund herself. She carved out work space from an unused corner of the lab where her husband worked.

Today Grummt, 66, is the head of a research division at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, or DKFZ), where her research focuses on epigenetics, cell division, and gene activity. For her scientific achievements -- accomplished while raising a daughter and pushing against slowly decaying stereotypes of women in science -- this year Grummt received the Women in Science Award from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS). Grummt will deliver an award lecture, and receive the €10,000 prize, in July at the 35th FEBS Congress in Gothenberg, Sweden.

Grummt's story has even more sides to it than her research, and scientific achievement is not the only qualification for the FEBS/WISE award. The honor is meant to direct attention toward women doing excellent science -- and to hold them up as examples for younger women, demonstrating that it is possible to excel in science while maintaining a rich life outside of it.

" 'Balance,' that's the right word," Grummt says.

Working it out

Today, epigenetics and transcription studies take up the bulk of Grummt's research time. The human genome, at a surprisingly small 25,000 genes, is filled with DNA -- sometimes labeled "junk" DNA -- that is transcribed with low efficiency. The "junk" turns out to be important in switching genes off and on. "One of the most exciting stories [in science] is regulatory noncoding RNAs, and how they determine the epigenetic state of genes," Grummt says.

Selected European Resources for Women in Science

EMBO maintains an excellent resource page for women in science. It includes general resources as well as country-specific links to organizations, programs, and funding opportunities.

The genSET project is an FP7 project to develop guidelines for science institutions to increase women's participation in science.

The WiLS Database, established by the European Life Scientist Organization together with FEBS and EMBO, allows established women working in relevant fields to represent themselves online, showing their expertise. The database is also a resource for conference conveners looking for potential speakers.

Grummt's focus has led to findings about how noncoding RNA recruits chromatin-modifying enzymes as a kind of "silencer" of genes. "A long-standing question is how these epigenetic modifiers find the place to go," she says. She and her team believe they now understand the mechanism; they plan to describe it in forthcoming papers. The findings have implications for cancer cell growth, a smaller slice of her research agenda.

Before she could become an internationally established leading researcher, Grummt had to overcome the challenges of those difficult first years in West Germany in the 1970s. And she had to do it on her own. "I never had a supervisor, or someone who supported me, no one who would call when I applied for jobs," she recalls. "In that respect, what I'm really proud of ... [is that] what I've achieved, I did without help. But I would do the same again and again and again and never regret it. It was not easy. I had to learn everything by myself, and with a child, and a [bad] financial situation. In the end, it was good."

"I was absolutely uneducated," she says. In East Germany, where she did her Ph.D., scientists didn't have certain reagents or other up-to-date tools of the trade, she says. The first grant application Grummt wrote when she got to West Germany was "probably stupid nonsense," she jokes now. These shortcomings didn't hold her back for long; she received several consecutive 2-year stipends to support her work as a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry.

Grummt finished her habilitation at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in 1977 and went on to lead a research group at the Institute of Biochemistry at the Julius-Maximilians Universität in Würzburg, which she joined in 1980. In 1985, she was appointed a full professor of molecular biology at the Institute of Virology and Immunology in Würzburg.

In 1990, Grummt moved to her present position at DKFZ. That same year, she was appointed professor at the University of Heidelberg and received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, a prestigious German award for excellence in research, which included 3 million deutsch marks for research).

"She must have been extremely determined," says Grummt's friend and colleague Peter Herrlich, scientific director of the Leibniz Institute for Age Research at the Fritz Lipmann Institute in Jena, Germany. Herrlich is impressed that, in addition to escaping East Germany and wrangling a junior group leader position fairly quickly, she built an award-winning, internationally recognized science career. By accomplishing all this "while being a mother at the same time. Ingrid became a role model for women in the life sciences," Herrlich says.

Personal lessons

Child care is essential to achieving balance between career and family life, Grummt says, especially for women. She has learned this from experience.

In East Germany, when Grummt was starting her career, the communist government provided inexpensive and ubiquitous child care to working men and women. The benefit allowed women scientists to work hard without worrying what might happen to their families. Women were expected to work; children as young as 3 or 4 months old were readily accepted into child-care programs. There was no stigma.

But in West Germany in the 1970s, child care was neither cheap nor plentiful. Grummt recalls splitting working shifts with her husband when their child was sick: "He would work 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then I worked from 3 p.m. to 11 at night." On an average day, once her daughter was in bed for the evening, Grummt would work for a couple of hours, planning experiments for the next day, reading, and so on.

Grummt says that after-hours work is really a good thing. Scientists, she says, "have the freedom [to] plan, to choose when to do experiments." That flexibility also can be made to work for a woman scientist who wants a family. "It's not easy, but it's possible," she says. The flip side is that "8 hours are usually not enough."

Above all, though, "it's most important to be a good scientist," Grummt says. Success, she adds, arises from the right combination of excellent science, humanity, and a sense of humor. "In retrospect, I can advise my students because I made every mistake," Grummt says with a laugh. "I'm enthusiastic, I love my job, and they feel it. I love to discuss science, and I do my science together with young people."

Naomi Lubick is a science writer in Zurich, Switzerland.

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