For Wistar researcher Dr. Gundi Ertl, time away from the lab is best spent with furry — and feathered — friends.
Managing a lab involves a complex orchestration of tasks: running experiments, writing grants, engaging staff, managing the research budget, and answering emails. With many tasks to juggle, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that when the day ends or the weekend rolls around, perhaps a Principal Investigator (PI) would want a break or some time alone.
For Dr. Gundi Ertl, professor in Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, an entirely different sort of team is waiting for her when she arrives home, but one that brings her peace: two hulking Great Danes, three cats, and one ill-behaved African Grey parrot, all clamoring for her attention, and maybe a treat.
“I’ve had pets all my life,” she explains, sharing the details of her childhood growing up in Germany with cats. “My family owned a company that made cloth. The factory was on a big property and there were many sheds. So we needed cats to manage small pests, and I was always allowed to have one.”
After finishing medical school in Germany, she got her own cat. But a year later, after landing a fellowship opportunity in Australia, she was forced to leave the cat with her mother. Not to be deterred, though, Dr. Ertl made her way to Australia, found temporary housing in a hostel and immediately got herself a Siamese cat. “That cat eventually came with me to Boston,” she explained.
That cat is the entire reason why Dr. Ertl became drawn to her beloved Great Danes.
Following her fellowship in Australia and another at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Ertl was recruited by Harvard University, and she and her cat moved to Boston. While living there, she made an unplanned visit to the vet to tend to the ailing Siamese. It was in the waiting room of the vet clinic that Ertl first saw what would become her preferred dog.
“The cat was seated on my lap, and she was clearly uncomfortable,” she recalls. “In walks this man with a black Great Dane. I was mesmerized — it was the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen.”
Since that day, Dr. Ertl has owned seven Great Danes, and currently has one 9-year-old male, Papageno, who is 180 lbs., and a 3-year-old female named Black Magic, who weighs in at 140 lbs. “There’s no pretension. They can be obnoxious, but by and large, the dogs are always happy to see me. They’re fun to watch, and if they complain you can ignore them,” she says laughing.
Dogs, of course, have a mind of their own and ignoring them is not always an option. Dr. Ertl tells one such story from her time in Boston, when she decided to train her dog in an obedience program.
“There is one exercise where you make your dog sit, you walk away 20 or 30 feet, and the dog must wait until you call it. We were in a large open area, next to some fenced in areas,” she describes. “I called my dog and she started running toward me at 100 miles an hour, and just before she reached me she veered off, jumped over the fence and into an area with a Golden Retriever.” After some choice words from the other dog’s owner, Gundi and her dog were excused from the program.
On the feline side, Gundi now has three cats in her house: a Siamese named Wendolin, an Egyptian Mau named Mozart, and a 15-pound Maine Coon named Maximilian, all of whom coexist comfortably with the dogs. “The Maine Coon can be amazingly obnoxious, but she is very beautiful.”
Then there’s the African Grey Parrot named Matilda that Gundi adopted 12 years ago from a rescue, who has a bit more of a surly personality.
“When I picked her up from the rescue, she looked at me and said, ‘Oh no, I’m not going with you.’ And I decided, ‘You bet you are!’ It was sort of a challenge,” she says. “She’s not a very friendly bird. If you get too close to her cage she’ll bite, so everyone stays away.”
“When I first got the bird, her name was Spanky,” she continues. “I decided I hated that name, so I called her Matilda. But now every evening I say ‘good night, Matilda’ and she responds with ‘Good night, Spanky bird.’ Twelve years later and we are still fighting that issue.”
But challenges are not something that Dr. Ertl shies away from. After nearly 36 years as a Wistar researcher — and as a female scientist at the forefront of vaccine research — she’s learned to stand her ground. “I have a reputation of saying what I think,” she explains. “As women, we can’t be intimated and must stop being shy and subservient.”
During her career she’s also seen things improve for rising female scientists. “20 or 30 years ago I would be the only female speaker to get invited to conferences, and that happened over and over again,” she recalls. “That has stopped. Now more women are getting invited, so it has gotten better.”
So what does the future hold for Dr. Ertl?
“I love science. I love my people,” she says of her lab team at Wistar. “I also co-founded a company that has future potential. And I have family in Morocco. So I’ve thought about moving to Morocco where I can continue consulting. I’m going to stay active, not sit on my hands.”
And if she leaves the country, would the pets go with her?
“Yes. Absolutely, though I’m not so sure about the parrot. Some countries have strict import rules about animals, so we’ll have to figure that out.”
But in the end, even an ill-mannered parrot is a beloved companion through and through.