EMBL alumna 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 April 30, 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.

Read tributes to Elisa’s life from the EMBL community.