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Women and children come first for 'Woman of Year'

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October 2, 1996

By Laurent Pernot

Kate Barany, professor of physiology and biophysics and UIC Woman of the Year is, first and foremost, a mother.

It takes a lot of effort to get her to talk about herself, instead of her very successful children.

On her office wall is the photo of her eldest son George published in Science Digest, which in 1984 named him one of America's top 100 young scientists. He teaches biochemistry at the University of Minnesota.

And there's the picture of Francis that appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine, when he was selected for a science competition in Washington, D.C., right out of high school. He is a microbiologist at Cornell University.

"As you can see, I'm a proud mother," said Barany, a native Hungarian who immigrated to the United States in 1960 with her husband, Michael Barany, now a professor emeritus of biochemistry.

Her dedication to children is not limited to her own. She was instrumental in establishing the UIC Children's Center in 1984, after eight years of effort.

She donated the $1,000 she received with her award last week to the Children's Center.

"When we were trying to get the center started, I felt very strongly that child care was an important issue even though my kids were already grown," she said. "Society has to do something for people and, in the end, it will benefit from it."

Another reason Barany was honored by the Chancellor's Committee on the Status of Women is her dedication to helping women in her field.

"When I got my Ph.D., I was the only female probably in the whole room," she said. "When I was teaching here in the late '70s and early '80s, there were very few female medical students.

"I always volunteer to be an adviser to women, especially mothers, because they need the most help," she said.

When he presented Barany with the award, Chancellor David Broski commended her for having "served as a role model to women in the university professions, an adviser and mentor for women students and colleagues, and a dedicated activist to improve conditions for women."

Since she came to UIC in 1974, she has fought for flexible tenure, career guidance for women in science, female-friendly facilities -- including a women's locker room near the swimming pool in the Chicago Illini Union, unlike the one in the Physical Education Building -- and equal pensions for men and women.

"My first goal has always been to succeed in my profession to be a true role model," Barany said.

She was sent to Auschwitz at age 15. After her one-year internment in the Nazi concentration camp, she became determined to never again see her life spin out of control.

"Before the war, I wanted to be a pianist. I even played in public," she said.

"But after Auschwitz, I became much more of realist. I wanted a profession where I could always earn a living and be able to control my life."

After the war, she studied physics, physical chemistry and mathematics at Eotvos University in Budapest.

One day, she cut her finger; a young medical student named Michael Barany treated the injury. They married a few months later.

"My husband was my mentor," she said. "He encouraged and supported me to ensure I succeeded."

The stable life brought by their marriage, careers and the arrival of their son George was not to last. In October 1956, Hungarian students revolted against the Communist regime before being crushed by Soviet troops.

Because they had "always wanted freedom," they left Hungary illegally in 1957.

"I had a 2-year-old son and I was seven months pregnant," Barany said.

"We asked the man we paid to show us the way how we would know we had reached Yugoslavia and he told us, 'You'll know.'

"There was snow on the ground and Hungarian soldiers were shooting at us. We had to crawl on the ground and through a ditch until we got through the no-man's land.

"When the soldiers on the other side took us to the refugee camp, my son said, 'It was a nice walk.'''

After she earned her Ph.D. from Frankfurt University in Germany in 1959, she and her husband immigrated to the United States.

"America is the land of freedom and the land of your dreams," she said.

The couple worked for 14 years at the Institute for Muscle Disease in New York City, until the center was closed.

"When I first came, people would talk about soft and hard money and I didn't know what they meant," she said. "I learned the difference."

Both she and her husband were offered tenured positions in the U of I College of Medicine that year.

"I had to learn how to teach," she said. "I attended my colleagues' lectures and took notes about what to do and what not to do.

"And I think I succeeded."

She received a Golden Apple for Excellence in Teaching in 1989, among other teaching awards.

"If you work very hard for a goal, you'll reach it," she said.

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