by Ann Waldron
"I grew up in Derby, Conn., the only child of Polish parents," she says. "That was my first language. My father, an immigrant, never learned to read or write, but he was a very wise man. I always wanted to be a scientist, maybe because of Marie Sklodowska Curie;a Pole and a Nobelist."
Young Mycek was valedictorian of her high school class and expected as a matter of course to be admitted to the college of her choice, Tufts University. Tufts turned her down.
Mycek recalls incidents in her life with an amazing lack of either vanity or self-pity. "I was staggered," she says, "but it taught me something: You don't always get what you want."
She enrolled at American International College in Springfield, Mass., but after a year transferred to Pembroke;the residential college for women at Brown University;and signed up for a chemistry class for potential majors. Of the 60 students in the course, about 15 were women, and the professor asked them to stay after the first class.
"I'll never forget him," she says. "His name was Norris Rakestraw, and he did everything he could to persuade us not to major in chemistry." He scared off 10, but Mycek was among those who hung on.
She graduated in 1948, when jobs weren't easy to find. A couple of her male classmates then at Yale Medical School told her they saw women working as technicians in the biochemistry lab. Mycek had an interview with Joseph Fruton, PhD, the director, and was hired.
She did all the lab work: "I was the hands. We were studying transamidation reactions catalyzed by proteolytic enzymes. The result was the formation of new peptide bonds.
"What we did then seems so primitive now. We naively thought this might be how proteins were synthesized. How wrong we were!"
At Fruton's suggestion, Mycek applied to graduate school at Yale, was accepted and did her doctoral work with him.
The percentage of women in biochemistry has always been higher than in chemistry, but Fruton warned her that she would encounter problems. "I said, 'If we don't try, we won't ever get anywhere.'"
Mycek got her PhD in 1955 and after doing a postdoctoral fellowship at what was then Rockefeller Institute, she worked for biologist Heinrich Waelsch, MD, whom she says "led me to think in new ways." He incubated homogenized rat liver in a solution with an amine and found ammonia was given off.
"We finally determined that we were forming a new amide bond. I got to name this enzyme;I called it transglutaminase. It's involved in clot formation, but we didn't know that then."
About this time, Seton Hall Medical School was just getting started in Jersey City. Some friends of Mycek's from Yale were in pharmacology at Seton Hall, and she was invited to join the department.
She protested that she was a biochemist, not a pharmacologist. But the chairman pointed out that the fields were close and getting closer.
"I went to look at the school and what struck me was the excitement," says Mycek. "Everybody was friendly, everybody smiled."
In 1961 she took a cut in pay and went to Seton Hall as a research associate, even though she brought a grant of more than $60,000 -; quite a sum in those days. There were three women basic scientists at the school;one in anatomy, one in biochemistry, and Mycek in pharmacology. Since Waelsch would not let her take transglutaminase with her, she went back to working on proteolytic enzymes.
"Meantime, I had to become a pharmacologist, in terms of teaching and learn more about animal work, which I had never really done. I taught dental students, medical students, and graduate students. It was fun in the laboratory.
"A student would say, 'Dr. Mycek, is this the vagus nerve?' And I'd say, 'You're a second-year medical student, you should recognize the vagus nerve.' Then I'd ask one of my colleagues, 'Is that the vagus nerve?' I learned on the fly." She was named assistant professor in two years.
In her own work, she went on to study the tolerance of animals to barbiturates. "As the dosage increased, liver enzymes that metabolized them also increased," she says. "It was as if the body were protecting itself."
However, little was known of the brain's adaptation to the drugs, and with Henry Brezenoff, PhD, now acting dean of UMDNJ-Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Mycek spent a few years working on that.
In the early '60s, rumblings from the nascent women's movement worked to Mycek's advantage: "They needed a woman on the admissions committee and they asked me. I was one of four faculty members elected to the faculty council."
In 1965 the school was taken over by the state and moved to Newark. She served on many school committees and a review panel at the National Institutes of Health. "This all took a lot of time," she reflects.
At the request of President Stanley S. Bergen, Jr., MD, she chaired the University-wide Committee on the Current Status of Women at UMDNJ from 1972 to 1974.
"We found we didn't have women at the professorial level, especially in the clinical departments," she says. "Women were paid less than men of the same rank. Even the secretarial staff was unhappy;they felt they couldn't get ahead because if they were good, the doctors wanted to keep them on as their secretaries.
"We made recommendations to Dr. Bergen, and I like to think changes were made because of that study. We now have the same pay scale, and we have more women professors." Mycek was named full professor in 1976 and was an outspoken member of the Faculty Council.
"At that time only 10 percent of each medical school class was women. The men said, 'When we train more women, we'll appoint them.' Well, the classes are now equally divided as to gender, and there are two women in pharmacology. The school has never had a woman department chair. I'd like to see one, and maybe a dean. There are many who could do a good job.
"I don't know that my contribution to science has been all that important, but I like to think my contributions to women have been fruitful. I say to younger faculty, 'Attend to research. Stay off committees.'"
Seven years ago, Vincent Lanzoni, MD, PhD, then dean of the graduate school, asked her to design an ethics course. There were objections from a few faculty members who believed that if students didn't know ethics, there was no use trying to teach them.
But by the end of the first course in 1992, there were no doubters left. Each year there is a plenary lecture. In March it focused on the use of human tissue in genetics research.
In other sessions, faculty members discuss scientific misconduct and fraud, funding, peer review, publication, animals in research, interpersonal relationships, patents and copyrights, whistle-blowing, and ethics in the industrial environment.
One of the most interesting sessions is always the one on authorship of articles for journals, Mycek notes. "What determines who will be the authors? I tell them how Yale had only one electron microscope when I was there and if you wanted to use it for research, you had to put the name of the man who was in charge of it on your paper."
Animal use has become a hot issue, and Mycek has served on the animal care and use committee at UMDNJ and at the Veterans Administration Hospital in New York.
"We've improved the way animals are used in research," she says. "People stop to think, 'Do I need this many animals? Can I use fewer? Can I do without animals?'" Now by federal mandate, all grant applications have to be approved by the animal care and use committee.
Mycek likes animals, but has no pets. "I'm away too much. Occasionally, I get a fly in my office, and I tell people that's my pet. I give it a name."
She retired from full-time teaching in 1990 in order to spend more time in Derby with her father, who was 98. He died in 1993.
Mycek travels a great deal and has been to Poland several times, to visit family and work on her genealogy. She enjoys the opera and the Yale Chamber Music Series.
She continues to teach part time and was the lead author of "Pharmacology," one of Lippincott's series of Illustrated Reviews, published
Inevitably, she returns to the subject of women in science: "The young women today may not appreciate the changes we accomplished. Isn't it wonderful they don't have to?"u