The Catholic University of America

Ildiko M. Kovach, Ph.D.

Ordinary Professor, Department of Chemistry

I spent my childhood in communist Hungary. The epoch was tainted with political persecutions of many innocent people including my family. For us, it culminated in the confiscation of our family home and its contents followed by deportation of my parents, maternal grandparents, myself with three siblings to the “Hungarian Siberia”. We were left with few belongings, were kept in animal stables, were made to perform hard farm labor and endured abuse. We spent 13 months in the labor camp, until Stalin died in 1953 and the camps were dissolved. The camp had a school for the twenty some school children, for all grades together, but the teacher did not bother to show up in class too often. However, I had all the little dirty school books for the eight’s grade that I studied in a room shared by fifteen people of four families. The room measured ~ 20x16 feet – unbelievable it may be. At arm’s length from where I studied sat on his bed Bela bacsi, a retired high-school math professor and a broadly educated man with a keen intellect. He chimed in when I deliberated on different subjects, especially when it came to math and the sciences, and always offered some clarification. Bela bacsi was inspiring, warm and loving; I owe him a lot. From the start, chemistry stood out for me. When we were released from the camp, my parents did everything possible to put me and my siblings into good schools, but we carried the stigma and it was also late in the fall. I got into a high school at last, certainly not my choice, but I stayed the course and graduated on top. I wanted to go onto studying chemistry at Eotvos Lorand University of Natural Sciences in Budapest. Accordingly I studied hard on my own to make up for deficiencies and passed the difficult entrance exam with flying colors. That did not do me any good, because of my class of origin, X (enemy of society in communist terminology). After the third trial, two years later and a married woman by then, I applied to the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences where politics was less dominant. The Rector finally enlightened me about my only chance to get admitted, that is I had to apply to the Ministry of Education for “clemency”. The Ministry of education could give clemency based on merit to one student out of a lot from class X each year. I got in and four years later I graduated with honors and with a strong research experience under the direction of my organic chemistry professor, my second great mentor. A year later my husband and I expecting our first child defected to Germany, where my son was born. A year after that we immigrated to the US and soon we had a daughter. The perspective for graduate studies in chemistry also materialized soon at the University of Kansas, while I raised my two small children. My academic advisor did not particular support the idea of women with a family making a professional career in 1974, so without his help I had to fend for myself again. Luckily, my postdoctoral advisor was a supportive and good mentor from whom I also learned very much. By 1978, I had my first independent research grant support and program.

I joined the Department of Chemistry at CUA as Associate Professor in 1989, as I was a senior scientist with a strong academic record. Initially I taught graduate chemistry courses and maintained a vigorous research program in areas of mechanistic enzymology and physical biochemistry supported by grants from the NSF, DOD and the American Heart Association. Two of these grants were associated with special research awards. Four graduate students and a postdoctoral collaborator worked with me at a given time on three projects for ten years. The results of these works and my other works were published in ~ seventy scientific papers. The Department of Chemistry changed directions ten years ago: admission the graduate program was suspended in Chemistry. Our focus is now on undergraduate education. Accordingly, I turned my attention to providing research opportunities to biochemistry and chemistry majors, especially in the summer. I secured grants from the NIH to support these activities in the past decade. Some of the highest achiever students at CUA worked with me on a project targeting the mechanisms of inhibition of enzymes in the blood clotting cascade systems, which is of vital medical interest. My central teaching responsibility has become General Biochemistry and Biochemical Techniques, the capstone courses for the Biochemistry BS and BA. I have also been Advisor and Chair of the Interdepartmental Committee for Biochemistry. I have been active in the Academic Senate and other committees at CUA . I served on the Editorial Board of the Biochemical Journal of the British Royal Society for nine years and reviewed probably a thousand scientific papers for many journals and proposals for funding agencies.

I never gave up on other interests despite my busy schedule. I spend time with and keep close to my children and enjoy the company of my granddaughter. With my family, I often visit our extended family in Hungary and France. I swim and bicycle whenever possible and water skied on the Potomac and area lakes every summer until last year. My scientific life included participation in conferences world wide. I have memories of many exciting visits of historic sites, archeological sites, art exhibits in the world’s greatest museums and beautiful Nature. I love to see good theatrical performances and listen to operatic and classical music in concert halls in Washington, elsewhere and at home.

The morale of my story is that serious obstacles may actually strengthen the will if all else fails. Little wonder is that I have the tendency to forge bonds with students who show an interest in their chosen field and have the determination to meet their goals.