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Elisa Izaurralde

In remembrance of Elisa Izaurralde

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of EMBL alumna Elisa Izaurralde. She died of metastatic cancer on 30 April 2018 at the age of 58. Elisa worked in the EMBL Gene Expression Unit (now Genome Biology Unit) for a total of 13 years between 1990 and 2006, with a gap of 3 years as a principal investigator at Geneva University.  Elisa flourished as a postdoctoral research fellow, as a group leader then later as a senior scientist and acting Head of Unit at EMBL. She was always ready to help her colleagues, who greatly benefitted from the drive and commitment she brought to her scientific work. As a group leader, she was a very active mentor of both fellows in her lab and of her younger group leader colleagues. After moving from EMBL to the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen as a Director, she developed a passion for mentoring and helping predoctoral fellows, particularly those representing minorities.

Elisa completed her doctoral training and first postdoctoral position in Switzerland, at the University of Geneva, where she became an expert in chromatin organisation then, late in her PhD, she started to work on HIV-1 proteins including rev. This kindled Elisa’s interest in transport of RNA from the nucleus to the cytoplasm and her decision, in 1990, to join EMBL as a postdoctoral fellow in the group of Iain Mattaj, EMBL’s current Director General. Here, she began by directly working on RNA transport, working initially mainly with Joe Lewis (now Head of the EMBL chemical biology core facility) to biochemically isolate then clone the heterodimeric nuclear cap-binding complex (CBC). CBC proved to have roles in nuclear pre-mRNA processing, the export of U snRNAs from the nucleus and, as later shown by others, an array of additional functions. She later expanded her interests to studies of the large family of import and export mediators being identified in the Lamond, Mattaj and Görlich labs in Heidelberg as well as at numerous locations worldwide. After moving to the University of Geneva for three years, where she successfully turned her attention to the export of mRNA from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, identifying the first cellular proteins involved in this process together with Matthias Wilm and others, Elisa returned to EMBL as a group leader in 1999. She maintained her enthusiasm for research on mRNA biology at EMBL and went on to become Senior Scientist and acting Head of Unit. In 2005, Elisa moved to the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, as a scientific director. Here, she continued to study various aspects of RNA metabolism and RNA-based regulation covering studies of the exon-exon junction complex, RNA stability, RNA localisation, micro (mi)RNAs and gene silencing through translational repression. Remarkably, she published top-class work in all these areas in an astonishing burst of sustained productivity and creativity. Elisa loved to collaborate and some of those with which she worked together successfully over longer periods were Matthias Wilm (mass spectrometry), Dirk Görlich (nucleocytoplasmic transport) and first Elena Conti then her Max Planck colleague Oliver Weichenrieder (structural biology). The combination of biochemical and structural analysis was the most obvious hallmark of her independent work.

Elisa’s work was recognised by several prestigious awards and honours, most prominently the Leibniz Prize and the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine. She was an elected member of EMBO, of the German Science Academy (Leopoldina) and a member of the board of Directors of the RNA Society. She was also a member of numerous advisory boards and panels, and served on a large number of editorial boards for prestigious journals.

Elisa’s life was inextricably linked with scientific endeavour. She was either doing an experiment or thinking of the next one. It was her need for answers which drove her commitment and devotion to research. With this came her readiness to help colleagues in the lab, both experimentally and conceptually. In the last few years of her life, Elisa gained a more long-term perspective. This was shaped by the understanding that every achievement is built into a larger picture.

Elisa enriched her life with many other activities, such as enjoying coffee with friends and hiking both in the forests around Tübingen and in the Italian Alps. Her sharp mind and smiling face are fondly remembered by her EMBL colleagues and friends.

Iain Mattaj and Matthias Wilm

With a heavy heart, I write a few words to celebrate Elisa. Elisa was a dear friend, collaborator and mentor ever since I met her at EMBL, when I was a PhD candidate. Her sharp mind was obvious to me even then and it was her mind and smile that helped me, and many others, during all these years. Elisa was an outstanding scientist, and probably the most committed researcher I have ever met. She was a role model, and her scientific qualities will always inspire me. My favourite memories of Elisa are the late nights, either dancing salsa at various clubs in Heidelberg or discussing science: probably her two passions. She would have liked us to carry on with the strengths and smarts that she had, and that is what I plan to do, with all my heavy heart.

Isabel Palacios

Condolence book

EMBL is putting together a condolence book of tributes to Elisa’s life from the EMBL community. If you would like to add a message, memory or story to this book, please contact the Alumni Relations team.

Tributes to Elisa’s life from the EMBL community

“I can hardly believe Elisa has passed away. I have a vivid remembrance of Elisa in Iain’s lab, sitting in front of me. Elisa’s smiling; her sweet way of talking and her kindness are unforgettable. A nice lab mate, a great scientist and a greater person is gone, but she will remain forever in our minds. Rest in peace. Ciao Elisa.”

  • Jordi Bernués, 13 July 2018
    Now: Scientific Researcher, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Institut de Biologia Molecular de Barcelona (IBMB), Barcelona, Spain
    EMBL: Postdoctoral Fellow, Genome Biology, Mattaj Group, 1990-1992

“Elisa’s untimely passing leaves an enormous void both scientifically and socially in my memories of EMBL. As a scientist, Elisa was a true force of nature with a seemingly insatiable appetite for research that was joyfully matched by her splendid humanity. I send my deepest condolences to her family and the rest of the EMBL community.”

  • Larry Zwiebel, 25 May 2018
    Now: Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Biological Sciences and Professor, Biological Sciences and Pharmacology, Vanderbilt Brain Institute and Institutes for Chemical Biology, Genetics & Global Health, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
    EMBL: Postdoctoral Fellow, Directors’ Research, Kafatos Group, 1994-1998

“It still seems unreal that a good friend, a generous and inspiring colleague, an outstanding scientist, our Elisa is gone. I will cherish the memories of our time spent together and will remember you dearly with your warm smile. Rest in peace dear Elisa.”

  • Maria Polycarpou-Schwarz, 24 May 2018
    EMBL: Technician, Directors’ Research/Genome Biology, Hentze Group/Gannon Group, 1989-2008

“I had so much hoped that medicine could save you, but tragically, the hoped-for miracle did not happen. You were a role model of a scientist and a colleague. Your thirst for science and your drive for perfection was close to none. You were always generous with your time, and for no lab in the world were fellows better prepared when they gave talks at international meetings. But most of all, I miss your modesty and your warm smile. Rest in peace!”

  • Matthias Hentze, 21 May 2018
    EMBL: Director

“This was very sad news to me and I am really shocked! I do remember Elisa as an extremely pleasant, kind, energetic and lively person and I will not forget the many times we were together in the fitness studio and enjoying life. My thoughts are with her family and by this I offer them my deepest condolences.”

  • Nelly van der Jagt González, 17 May 2018
    Now: Retired
    EMBL: Unit Administrator, Structural and Computational Biology, 1975-2014

“This is such a shock, and comes far too early in life. You were a key part of making my early years at EMBL a fun and very interesting experience. I’ll always remember the dinners we had in Santa Lucia’s and the Thai restaurant. You had so much spirit – a force to be reckoned with, always lively and full of energy. We’ll miss you dearly.”

  • Eileen Furlong, 16 May 2018
    EMBL: Head of Unit and Senior Scientist, Genome Biology

“We had so much fun and exciting times together at EMBL, both scientifically and socially, at all the memorable summer parties.  It is so sad and unfair to have lost you – a great friend, colleague and integer scientist.  Our hearts are with you and your family.  We will miss you and never forget you.  May you rest in peace.”

  • Michael Sattler, 4 May 2018
    Now: Professor, Institute of Structural Biology, Helmholtz Center Munich, Neuherberg, Germany
    EMBL: Group Leader, Structural and Computational Biology, 1997-2007
  • Rui Wang-Sattler, 4 May 2018
    Now: Group Leader, Research Unit of Molecular Epidemiology, Helmholtz Center Munich, Neuherberg, Germany
    EMBL: Predoctoral Fellow, Genome Biology/Directors’ Research, Steinmetz Group/Kafatos Group, 1995-2007

“This is indeed sad.  Elisa in her best years passes away.  She was such a creative and successful scientist, a role model for all young scientists.  I can only express my deep sorrow and my regret that cancer research is still not so far that we would be able to treat this plague that many of us will suffer from, with more success.  Elisa will remain in my mind as the leading light that she was.”

  • Kai Simons, 4 May 2018
    Now: Group Leader and Director Emeritus, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany
    EMBL: Head of Unit, Cell Biology and Biophysics, 1975-2000

“I’m so sad Elisa, I have so many good memories of our time at EMBL that is very difficult to accept you left us. I will alwas keep with me your smiley face, your curious eyes, your energy and, most of all, your friendship. You have been a beautiful friend and an admirable scientist, and I will always have you in my heart. You do not know how much I wish I was not writing these lines.”

  • Carlos Dotti, 1 May 2018
    Now: Professor, Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center, Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain
    EMBL: Group Leader, Cell Biology and Biophysics, 1988-2000

“This is very saddening news indeed.  We have lost a colleague and a great scientist that we very much admired.  Sincere condolences to her family.”

  • Damian Brunner, 1 May 2018
    Now: Professor, Institute of Molecular Life Sciences, University of Zurich, Switzerland
    EMBL: Group Leader, Cell Biology and Biophysics, 2000-2010
  • Manuela Brunner-Markl, 1 May 2018
    Now: Assistant, Institute of Molecular Systems Biology, ETH Zurich, Switzerland
    EMBL: Assistant to the Director General, 2000-2004

“I am in shock. Poor Elisa; such a kind and collegial person in addition to a great scientist.  We will miss her terribly”

  • Marino Zerial, 1 May 2018
    Now: Director, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany
    EMBL: Group Leader, Cell Biology and Biophysics, 1985-2001

“What shocking news; don’t know what to say. Sad wishes and condolences to all who were close to her.”

  • Klaus Scheffzek, 1 May 2018
    Now: Professor, Division of Biological Chemistry, Innsbruck Medical University (Biocenter Innsbruck), Austria
    EMBL: Team Leader, Structural and Computational Biology, 1999-2010