The College mourns the loss of Helena Birecka, professor emerita of
biological sciences, a woman recalled as a “brilliant colleague and teacher” who led an active research program focused on alkaloid biochemistry in plants. She died March 20, 2015 at the age of 93.
From 1970 until her retirement in 1991, she taught biochemistry and plant physiology. In 1975, she was the first female full professor on the teaching faculty. At a time when the College granted advanced degrees, she directed a number of students in pursuit of master’s degrees.
Birecka received her master’s degree from Agricultural University in Perm, Russia, and her Ph.D. from Timiriazev Agricultural Academy in Moscow. A native of Poland, she became an American citizen in 1974. She spoke Polish, English, French, Russian and German.
Before she came to the U.S., she was a well-respected professor of plant physiology in Poland, with several teaching and research posts at Agricultural University and the Polish Academy of Sciences, both in Warsaw. She also did research with the Central Isotope Laboratory in Pulawy, Poland, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. She supervised over 20 Ph.D. students, most of them in Poland.
For a year before she arrived at Union, Birecka was a research associate at Yale University. She was a Fulbright Fellow who taught graduate programs at the University of Istanbul, Turkey, and at the University of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
>She participated in many international scientific meetings, and reviewed research proposals for the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. She also reviewed manuscripts submitted for publication in scientific journals.
She published more than 90 papers in journals including Plant Physiology, Journal of Experimental Botany and Phytochemistry.
“She was a brilliant colleague and a teacher who challenged her students to excel,” said Peter Tobiessen, professor emeritus of biological sciences, who joined the College the same year as Birecka. “Good students loved her, and she had many research and graduate students during the brief period when Union had a graduate program,” he said.
Survivors include her husband, Mietek, a prominent agronomist.