Petra Epple

Scientist, skeptic, gardener, friend

By Rose Hoban

Petra Epple, scientist, skeptic, fierce and loyal friend, tender of growing things, died at home on August 10 from stage four lung cancer. She was 54.

For Petra’s friends, the idea that someone so young, vibrant and healthy has died inspires disbelief. When they think of her, it’s usually a memory of Petra outside on a sunny day, getting sweaty in her garden, planting a tree or exhorting her neighbors to plant a thousand bulbs through the neighborhood and spread several tons of mulch. They remember her leading colleagues from the University of North Carolina to Franklin Street for weekly lunches in an effort to improve group camaraderie or bringing her nephews from Germany to the North Carolina coast in order to experience the country she had made her own. 

Petra was born in Hochdorf, near Stuttgart, in the Schwaben region of Germany, where she attended gymnasium. She went on to receive a diploma in biology from University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart.

Always intellectually curious, Petra excelled in school from a young age, always at her desk, studying, keeping a bedroom full of books. Her only sibling, brother Bernd, said they mostly got along, differing most dramatically in their musical tastes, with Petra favoring the pop supergroup Abba. And although Bernd disliked the group and had a more powerful sound system, he said he nonetheless knows all the group’s lyrics courtesy of his sister. 

Petra almost always got the last word.

Intellectually ambitious, she migrated to Switzerland to pursue further study in biology, eventually concentrating in plant genetics and receiving a doctoral degree from Zurich's Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), one of Europe’s most prestigious universities.  

Despite doting on her family, in particular, her three nephews Dennis, Kevin and Chris, she made her way to the U.S. to do post-doctoral work in plant pathology in the late 1990s, landing at UNC Chapel Hill.

Colleagues and co-workers say she was a precise and meticulous researcher, with an encyclopedic memory of the literature in her area of plant molecular genetics, which focused on finding ways to prevent plants from succumbing to fungal diseases. A close friend remembers following painstakingly detailed instructions to water Petra’s orchids while she was away, and stumbling onto her “light reading,” a copy of Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry.

Most friends have a memory of an “eye-roll moment” when Petra would express her skepticism of some idea or plan. However she “was always willing to be convinced by data,” whether it be over a professional decision, a research debate or the decision to plant tomatoes in front of her condo.

Petra stayed on in the Jeff Dangl Lab, part of the Department of Biology at UNC, lending her organizational skills to transition the facility from an older site on the Chapel Hill campus to a cutting-edge research lab in a new facility.

Once that was accomplished, Petra moved to the biosciences research division of BASF, the global biotechnology company, publishing more than a dozen articles in scientific journals. In 2019, she was promoted to a principal scientist/global expert at BASF, one of only a handful at the company.

Petra will be sorely missed by her legion of friends, colleagues and family.

Her nephews were each treated to trips to North Carolina, where they visited the zoo, went hiking and stayed on the beach at Emerald Isle. Once on the beach, she provided them with opportunities for fishing, surfing and Jet Ski adventures. She relished the opportunity to spoil them, cook for them, hang out, tease them, tolerate their adolescent moods and "never get mad." 

Petra was a generous friend and colleague, whether it be with donations, time or work. She was described by one friend as the person “you called when you doubted yourself.” She was a strong shoulder to cry on, but Petra tolerated only so much sniffling, soon she would be encouraging her friend, “empowering them to confidence, to believe in themselves, without compromise.” A friend remembers these pep talks as frequently “Petra-fying,” even as they delivered a “psychic boost.”

Quick to laugh, Petra enjoyed engaging in flights of imagination. Her library was long on fantasy novels, mysteries and science fiction. She was a great cook, known for her Spaetzle, a specialty from her home province, and for German Christmas cookies made from family recipes. She would give away dozens of the treats both at work and during an annual party, where she spread out trays and trays of the sweets she spent weeks preparing. Each of her friends, it seems, has a different favorite.

In recent years, Petra’s work frequently brought her back to Germany, where she would add a few days onto her itinerary in order to visit family. At the airport, her brother’s parting words were always, “‘safe travels home,’ a farewell message that implicitly also said, ‘I love you, be well – until we meet again.’”

Petra is survived by her brother and sister-in-law Bernd and Martina Epple; nephew Dennis Epple and Jessika Copp and son Jason; nephew Kevin Epple and Jana Metz; and nephew Chris Epple and Hannah Heist. She was predeceased by her parents, Maria Theresia (Thea) and Paul Heinrich Epple. 

In lieu of flowers, Petra's family would be pleased if donations were made to Table Chapel Hill, Porch, or the Lineberger Cancer Center at UNC.

Petra Epple
  • born

    Jul 15, 1966

  • died

    Aug 10, 2020

Kirk Francis
Here are a few of the comments collected from some of Petra's BASF colleagues upon hearing the news of her passing:

I am greatly saddened by this news. I will miss Petra very much.

I probably did not fully realize the seriousness of her state because she was so rational and calm over it whenever we came to the topic of her cancer and death. Petra was so incredibly strong handling the situation and rationally facing her end. She has always been accepting it, there was no bitterness, anger or fear, just quiet acceptance

I am so terribly sorry to hear that! She will be very missed indeed!

That’s really bad and shocking news. I really had hoped that she would get better when returning home…

Very unexpected, shocking and sad! :(

Petra was extremely brave and strong, and remained positive despite her health condition. It will be great if we can celebrate her life in some way.

I had truly expected Petra to recover fully and probably outlive us all, she had that quiet determination that I simply expected it, stroke or no stroke. This is hard news to take.

Given the impact that Petra had on so many people and the organization itself (she was named an expert), is there a possibility that we might plant a tree on site, in her memory?

I’m so sad to hear that Petra has passed. Thanks for keeping us updated. I’m going to miss her so much. She will truly be irreplaceable. I was talking with my Mom yesterday on my walk about how hard it was to hear about her recent health challenges and how it doesn’t sound like she will be with us much longer. My Mom asked if there would be someone who would step into her position if she could no longer work, I immediately said, “Petra is irreplaceable, there’s likely nobody else in the world who has the level of expertise that she does and is able to contribute to projects the way she does, there isn’t anybody who can replace her.”

I am so very sorry to hear that. What a godawful, terrible year this has been.

very sad news indeed.

I am heart broken to hear this news.

My sympathies to her family, friends, close colleagues and this team. She was such an amazing colleague and I greatly valued her contributions to the project and the view she brought.
I will miss her.

These are very sad news. I am so sorry to hear that. Thank you for letting us know. Cancer is terrible.

That is such sad news. I had a high respect for Petra. And I did know she was struggling with cancer, but to learn she got such complications and succumb to them is hard to bear.

Such a shocking and sad news. She was amazingly strong and cheerful fighter. I always liked her colorful hat. May she rest in peace!

So sorry to hear this. This is so sad.

She was a fighter and I was really hoping she will make it through. I am sad and heartbroken to hear this and I will miss her. My heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.

So sorry to hear about this! Very sad.

Oh my, this is awful news:( Such a sweet woman.

I’m shocked and very sad to hear this. I talked to Petra not too long ago and I had the impression she was feeling better. She was such an amazing person and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her. I will miss her.

Very, very sad…speechless… liked what was written: “…no bitterness, anger or fear, just quiet acceptance.” Just too soon. Will miss her.

I am so saddened by this news. My deepest sympathy for her family and close friends. I will always remember her passion and enthusiasm for science. She truly inspired me and I am grateful for the opportunity I had to work with her.

I’m so saddened to hear this. I’ve known Petra for over a decade and considered her a friend in addition to being an excellent colleague. She will be greatly missed.

It’s really terrible news --- I am in awe of what a fighter she’s always been.

She was such a brilliant colleague and one of the warmest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. My deepest condolences to her friends and family --- I will really miss her.

This is very sad news indeed.

I’m glad she was at home. She played a big role in my move to the Dangl lab and it was a pleasure to overlap with her when we were post docs. She played a huge role in that lab for almost 10 years. She will be missed.

Very, sad.

This is so very sad. Could we put a tree by the pond in her honor?

Very… very sad news indeed. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to meet Petra face to face, but, of course, knew that she was recognized as a Expert in her field of expertise and hoped to meet her at some point… Only once had a chance to “meet” her during a conference call. Such a big loss…

this is devastating news. So young, so much to live. Really heartbreaking news.

These are so sad news.I will always remember what a great person, scientist and project team leader she has been- always highly motivated and positive about everyone’s achievements. I have always hoped that I will meet her again. My deepest condolences to her family, friends and close colleagues.

Always a generous soul – she will be missed.

Petra always was a scientific inspiration und her support and the fungal soy team definitely one of the good memories of my time with BPS!

I am devastated and very sad to hear the news. Even knowing that this day would come, I was shocked. I am happy that I was able to talk to her several weeks ago and she wasn’t alone when she died. I will miss her as a person and as an excellent scientist. I have many nice memories of her, and my daughter has a soft cat, which she gave her as present the last time we saw her.

I’m deeply saddened, Petra was a brilliant scientist and an extraordinary person.
I worked with Petra in the Grangl lab. She was a great scientist and great friend. She was quick to help and also quick to let you know if she thought you were making a mistake! :-) I always appreciated her honest feedback. I could not find many pictures in the lab, but found one of her directing us in the move from Coker to the new Genome Science building. It made me smile as that is how I will remember Petra - getting stuff done! She will be missed.
Dear Petra,
For six years our paths were intertwined.
You brought a smile to my face.
You challenged me.
You humbled me.
You enriched my life.

For the 14 years that followed, you continued to enrich my life.
I have practiced what I learned from you.
I have been less afraid to speak my mind.
I have tried to extend myself to help others.
I have tried to show kindness towards others.

For one day this year, you caused me great pain.
You caused me to cry uncontrollably.
The pain lingers.

But yet again, you have taught me.
Life is a crisscross of paths.
No matter how short a path.
No matter how long paths intertwine.
Make them meaningful.

You will forever be a part of my life.

Thank you.

Jeff Chang
Grangl lab (1999-2005)
Susanne Kjemtrup-Lovelace
Petra at a Dangl party at Susanne's house; ~1999
Petra Epple
  • born

    Jul 15, 1966

  • died

    Aug 10, 2020