A former ice dancer leaps into molecular science

April 20, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

Susan Dymecki: former ice dancer who once ranked sixth in national competition and competed on the international circuit.

Susan Dymecki: now molecular biologist, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate who identified a new gene that could one day help doctors to detect diseases -- such as cancer -- earlier.

Ms. Dymecki was one of the three top prize winners in the Fifteen Annual Young Investigators Day at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine held earlier this month. She was honored for identifying the gene.

The accomplishments of this 31-year-old former ice dancer turned scientist are enough to make the rest of us feel like slouches.

Ms. Dymecki, however, takes her accomplishments in stride. She even tends to downplay them. "Everyone has their own thing that they do," she says nonchalantly, while relaxing recently over a cup of coffee.

Born in Philadelphia, Ms. Dymecki moved to Baltimore in 1985 to study for her Ph.D. and medical degree at Hopkins. Looking back, she recalls that she always loved science and math classes but didn't even slip on a pair of ice skates until she was a teen.

Her family was living in New Jersey at that time and the children next door were avid ice skaters.

"I started when I was 13," says the petite brunet who has an engaging smile. "That was kind of old. I never grew out of my skates like most people do. My skates just wore out."

Once she slipped those skates on and hit the ice, Ms. Dymecki learned something new about herself. "I found out that I was good at it," she says. Then came the lessons. And more lessons and even more lessons.

"Really, this is something that you get sucked into," she says.

During high school she took skating lessons to fulfill the physical education requirements. In a community near Wilmington, Del., which was then the nationwide center for ice dancing and pair skating, she teamed up with an ice dance partner.

After graduating from high school, she tried being a full-time student in the engineering department at the University of Pennsylvania while training for the Olympics at the same time. It got to be too much.

"We would practice from 10:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., then I would leave [the rink in Wilmington] and try to make a 9 a.m. physics class," she says, smiling at the memory. "That was a special time."

As a full-time competitor, she supported herself by working at various sales clerk jobs, financial help from her parents and loans and grants from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

All the while, making it to the Olympics remained foremost on her mind. "That was my goal, the Olympics," she says.

By the time she was 20, she and her partner ranked No. 6 in the country. When it comes to skating, that was her personal best.

It was good enough to get her on the international circuit, where she competed in countries worldwide including France and Germany. But not good enough to get her to the Olympics.

Her partner, a California native, decided to call it quits and head back home. For Ms. Dymecki, it was a time to reflect on what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

For a while, she looked for another partner but had no luck. "There are so many more female skaters than men. Sort of the opposite of the science world," she says.

Unable to find a partner to continue her specialty of pair ice dancing, she chose to leave the female-dominated ice-skating world and dive into the male-dominated science one.

"That was the hardest thing for me to do," she says about giving up skating. Once the decision was made, though, there was no turning back. She has no time to skate now but does hope to be able to teach figure skating in the future.

She has spent years in the classroom, laboratories and hospital where most of her teachers and classmates have been male. But Ms. Dymecki has never noticed any gender bias.

"I have heard horror stories from other women scientists," she says. "I consider myself lucky. I always got positive feedback from faculty and peers."

She expects to have her medical degree and Ph.D. in about one month. "I'm counting the days," she says. "I can't wait."

Ms. Dymecki plans to use her Ph.D. more than her medical degree since she prefers research more than clinical work. "It's hard to do both very well," she explains.

According to Dr. Diane Griffin, a professor at the medical school, Ms. Dymecki "is the kind of person who is going to succeed in whatever she does."

Ms. Dymecki is a model student, says molecular biologist Dr. Stephen Desiderio. "She was and still is a superb graduate student," he says. "She is independent, creative and very disciplined."

Dr. Desiderio oversaw Ms. Dymecki's work in identifying the new gene. The gene (called blk for B lymphoid Kinase) could help in triggering the body's immune response.

For Ms. Dymecki, who is married to an orthopedic surgeon, the award represents yet another notch in her belt. The accomplishments, she insists, do not come easy.

"What's been important was having a number of mentors I can turn to," she says.

Plus she works hard.

"Whatever I'm doing, I just sort of put my head down and go to work," she says.

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