TUM Alumna Eveline Gottzein, PhD Electrical Engineering and Information Technology 1983, Honorary Professor 2011

TUM Alumna Eveline Gottzein, PhD Electrical Engineering and Information Technology 1983, Honorary Professor 2011 (Bild: Magdalena Jooß/TUM).

Alumni in leadership
Control Engineer Eveline Gottzein
“I am tenacious and never give up”
15. Oct 2018  |  
Reading time Min.
Before escaping the GDR Eveline Gottzein sent her physics books via post to the West. It was here that she finished her technical studies, which had been denied to her in the GDR for a long time due to her middle class background.

As an expert in the areas of trajectory and attitude control systems and levitation systems for maglev trains, amongst others, she then delivered an impressive career and managed projects all over the world. For her achievements she received the Bavarian Order of Merit, the Federal Cross of Merit, and as the first woman so far, was honoured with the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring.

In this interview, she talks about her exciting ‘journey to the West’, what Franz Josef Strauß had to do with her coming to Bavaria and why she is convinced that we will see many more successful women in the engineering industry in the future.

Ms Gottzein, you have done an apprenticeship, have been fully immersed in professional life already – and then started all over again by going to university. How was that?
I always wanted to study, ideally Mathematics and Physics but due to my middle class background and because the rector didn’t like me, they didn’t suggest me for studying. That’s how it was in the GDR back then: if you weren’t suggested, that was it for the time being. That hurt because already in elementary school I was interested in technical areas. My father is an engineer, he always wanted sons but only got girls. But they were as interested in Engineering as he was. Even though my mother already threatened him when the second daughter was born: “You are not going to turn this one into a boy again” (laughs).
What did you do instead of studying?
An apprenticeship in Electrical Engineering at the RFT Centre for Telecommunication in Leipzig. It instantly fascinated me, especially working in the development lab. Apparently my work was also pretty good and I was suggested for activist. This was a GDR award for people whose achievements exceeded the norms and standards. As an activist I was delegated by my employer to go study at the University of Applied Science in Dresden. Even back then women were desperately sought after for technical professions. This set the tracks for my future life.
That was the way it was in the GDR back then: If you weren’t nominated, you were out for the time being. That hurt, because even in elementary school I was interested in technical fields.

Eveline Gottzein

You have developed electrical equipment to simulate complex industrial processes during your studies. So far this had not existed yet. In 1957 it was one of the highlights of the spring trade fair in Leipzig. Then you fled.
Because I had developed the simulation system MOSYAN I got a consultant contract and was able to go to Berlin and also to take luggage – of course everything very carefully.
Did your family know about your plans?
My father didn’t know anything but he suspected it. My mother told me afterwards that dad came back from Berlin and said: „She won’t come back“. When I saw my sister again for the first time years later she said to me: „You did the right thing“. Thank god – because she had to carry that I escaped. She was a glider pilot and obviously very good – but then she wasn’t allowed to fly anymore. After my escape my family was under special observation, the whole house was bugged.
You have experienced history first hand.
Yes, indeed. But you know, you really don’t realize that when you are in the middle of it. You perceive it as threatening or amazing, you play along, as far as you are able to. It was only later that I understood the consequences.
What was it like when you arrived in West Germany?
First I was in Gießen in the refugee reception centre. I knew all along that I wanted to go to Darmstadt to study. From literature I already knew the names of the for me most relevant professors. Being in Gießen I was in Hessen already, so that was convenient.
What did you take with you on your ‘journey to the West’?
I remember very well how I put favourite books in the mailboxes as parcels to sent them to ‘the West’ like this. These were for example the textbooks by Heinrich Georg Barkhausen, the German physicist, I still attended his lectures in Dresden. He was one of the pioneers of x-ray technology. With that I had a nice foundation for my new library. I did however not have documentation of my exams or certificates in my luggage. That’s why I had to start again from scratch in Darmstadt. They also wanted me to do the Abitur.
You really had to go back to school again?
Luckily it turned out well thanks to professor Joachim Maruhn, who was in Gießen and who vouched for me: “Send my regards, I wish her all the best“ and so on. I just had to retake the diploma exams but that wasn’t a problem at all. One of the professors reassuringly said: “You don’t have to be scared, we aren’t asking any terrible questions.” And I said: “Professor, this is not an issue. I have worked in this field”.
You already worked during your studies?
I had a small scholarship and benefitted from the so-called “Hessenerlass” (Hessen waiver), just like a native from that area I didn’t have to pay tuition fees. In the beginning I sold knitting machines on the side, as well. In Hessen I drove out to the countryside to farmwives who were perfect in knitting and explained to them how to do it with a knitting machine. That was a funny experience but just a short episode. And then things happened faster than I was able to keep up with. During the semester breaks I worked for the computer company Electronic Associates in Brussels, later even with a contract during my studies. So I flew and drove back and forth between Brussels and Darmstadt. On top of that I took my exams.
That must have been exhausting.
I was fascinated by the opportunities and determined to use them to the greatest possible extent. I still remember preparing for my theoretical exam in Physics. I arrived by plane from Brussels and we had been in the waiting loop over Frankfurt forever. I had Arnold Sommerfeld’s textbook on my lap. I continued working, reading, the whole chapter. We landed delayed and I immediately called the professor who said I could postpone the exam. I said: “No professor, I am going to rent a car and am coming straight away.“ He was very worried and told me to drive carefully. And what did they ask in the exam? Exactly the part of Sommerfeld I had just been reading on the plane.
Of course you passed the exam and then you came to Bavaria.
Yes, Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauß had brought helicopter and airplane manufacturer Bölkow to Munich back then, to Ottobrunn. It was there they had testing grounds of the Institute for Aerodynamic Testing, with giant wind tunnels. Bölkow made rockets there: Kobra, Milan, Hot and the big Roland, the anti-aircraft missile and then very large carrier rockets, the precursors of Ariane. For that they needed control and simulation systems. They wanted me to join them and build the system simulation. Due to my work in the simulation centre of Electronic Associates in Brussels I had the relevant experience with the simulation of complex technical systems, such as airplanes and nuclear plants. One of their arguments to persuade me was: “and this beautiful environment, the lakes and the mountains”. My response was: “I am not interested in mountains at all!” I wanted to go to America, to the USA, to Princeton. Well, and then in the end I decided to help set it up. I stayed – for 50 years.
And what about the Bavarian surroundings. Have you learnt to love the mountains by now?
That is the funnies part in all of this. When I had finally finished my diploma thesis I went to the mountains. I still remember it exactly, it was a new year’s morning, beautiful winter weather. And I thought: “Ah well, you have to get some hiking boots, but wait till they are on sale, something very cheap because you don’t know yet if you even like this“. That was how it started. Shortly after I needed sturdy hiking boots and crampons, an ice pick and harness and pretty much spent all my free time in the mountains. Then I started skiing, which brought me all the way to Mont Blanc. Saying that I am completely captivated by the mountains is still an understatement.
After that you joined TUM to do your PhD. What motivated you to do that?
To be honest: I didn’t need it at all to work back then. But I always had topics which fascinated me and which I worked on. Such as the maglev train. At that time the subject was trending and most of all: there were testing vehicles to try it. I already had lots of material and naively thought, I am going to take six week off and finish that. So I started writing and it was the way it probably is for everyone in a similar situation: all these gaps everywhere, which still require work. So it took five years. But I was consistent and said: “Ok, no mountains, as long as you haven’t handed it in yet.” In the end my dissertation was 532 pages strong, typewritten and edited with scissors and glue. But I had developed the foundations of the Transrapid’s levitation system.
At that time you had been working in the industry for over 20 years already and lead a main department for controlling and simulation. How did you master the double load of doing a doctorate?
I really could only work on my PhD after work and on weekends. But work never finished so I only had from Friday evening to Monday morning. I got a lot done on the plane as well. I will be forever grateful to my supervisor Professor Kurt Magnus of the Mechanics Institute and his scientific assistant at that time because they not only generously tolerated that but also supported it.
As a woman, have you ever felt disadvantaged in your studies or at work?
I did get to hear a lot. My relatives in Westphalia said for example: “Girl, what you look like again! This is all just because of all your studying nonsense.” Common opinion was that that is not suitable for women. And at university we were 700 freshmen but just six or seven women. The few women who were in lectures with me came from abroad – France or Italy. And still today girls are less interested in technology because they are talked into believing it’s not for them.

Eveline Gottzein encouraged women to go their own way at the Women of TUM Talks 2018 (Photo: Astrid Eckert/TUM).

Can something be done about that?
I have hope. Since many years the Board of the Foundation Werner-von-Siemens-Ring intensively strives for the nomination of women. They have the Circle of Young Scientists. Their proportion of women is already quite considerable. Also technology itself is changing and offers a wider choice of professional options. I am committing to this cause whenever I see fit and have the opportunity to do so.
But you are still the only woman to have ever won the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring.
But it is being awarded for lifetime achievements. Accordingly you have got to have reached a certain age. In the future more women will be drawn to technology, because it is changing. My Mechanical Engineering internship was about compressing sand and adding pins to gears. You really have to be rather enthusiastic in order to like that. But today there are a lot more software-oriented approaches.
I imagine: in your role of head of department you are flying around the world with your team members and manage projects in Japan, China and Brazil. Being a woman, you must have been an exemption here.
Of course. I had to assert myself, especially in other cultures. You have to know what you want. That’s the most important thing anyway, to know what you want. You have to recognize your opportunities and come up with a strategy, a concept of how to use the opportunity and shape it yourself. Generally men are happy to have someone who tells them how it works, right?
Looking back on a very successful career. Which one of your characteristics have been decisive in your success?
I received a good physical-technical education on the foundations at good universities from excellent teachers. My main competency, I think, is that I recognize interrelationships, can develop concepts and that I am tenacious. I never give up. I am able to assess what might be successful and what won’t work. And then I don’t give in but keep going. Last but not least it was important that I have always found someone who supported me. I had very difficult times, very annoying times but I never let them get me down.
Prof. Dr. Eveline Gottzein

Prof. Dr. Eveline Gottzein (Picture: Magdalena Jooß/TUM)

Prof. Dr. Eveline Gottzein

PhD Electrical and Computer Engineering 1983

After her Abitur, Eveline Gottzein completed an apprenticeship in Electrical Engineering. From 1952 until 1957 she studied Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Physics in Dresden, and after fleeing from East-Germany, in Darmstadt. As early as during her studies she worked as an engineer at the Electronic Associates’ European Simulation Centre in Brussels.

In 1959 she joined helicopter and airplane manufacturer Bölkow in Munich and soon after managed international projects as head of department, amongst others, in Japan, China and Brazil. Alongside these activities she did a PhD at TUM on the topic of magnetic levitation trains. She is an honorary professor at the University of Stuttgart and “Distinguished Affiliate Professor” at TUM.

To date she is the only woman to ever receive the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring, the highest award in Germany for people whose achievements promoted Engineering Sciences or science representatives who opened up new directions to technology through their research. Furthermore she holds the Bavarian Order of Merit, the Bavarian Maximilian Badge for Science and Art, and the Grand Federal Cross of Merit and is Fellow of the International Federation of Automatic Control and of the American institute on Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).