“I marvel at your success,” said UNC President Margaret Spellings when introducing 2015 Nobel Laureate Aziz Sancar at the July 29 Board of Governor’s meeting.
Sancar was there to receive the O. Max Gardner Award, the oldest and most prestigious statewide honor given to a faculty member who has “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.”
“Doctor Sancar’s impact on modern biology is enormous,” said Roger Aiken, chair of the award selection committee. Sancar was selected for the award not just for the groundbreaking work in mapping DNA repair that earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry but also “to acknowledge a steady stream of his remarkable discoveries that yield enormous benefits to the human race.”
After the audience viewed the premiere of a UNC-TV video story on Sancar’s life and work, the researcher came forward to accept the award. He thanked the Gardner family for creating an award that shows appreciation to faculty members and congratulated the Board of Governors for the way they “represent Carolina as I got to know Carolina,” he said.
“We are progressive, we value hard work, and we don’t care about your race or your ethnic background or religion,” said Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine. “What we value are your contributions to society in general.”
Sancar shared humorous memories of the day he received the Nobel Prize, including how a student who recognized him at the crosswalk that morning told him “good job.” He also thanked his colleagues and research team, who were in the audience, as well as University administrators and his wife, Gwen.
“Great universities are built on great faculty,” said board Chair W. Louis Bissette Jr., “and this university is indeed blessed with great talent among its faculties and great devotion among its students, alumni and friends.”
The board announced its selections for the Gardner Award in May and honored Sancar’s fellow recipient, David Shapiro of Western Carolina University, at that time. But Sancar was in his native Turkey then.
He was giving away an award.
On May 19, Sancar donated his precious gold 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a museum in Ankara, Turkey. The museum is part of the complex surrounding the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a national shrine that attracts more than 10 million visitors annually.
Turkish revolutionary leader Ataturk was a big hero in Sancar’s family. “My mother was the daughter of an imam, and she really…,” he hesitated to use the verb, but there was no way around it, “worshipped Allah and she worshipped Ataturk.”
Not only did Ataturk — whose surname means “Father of the Turks” — lead his country to independence from its occupiers in 1922, he also enacted sweeping political, economic and cultural reforms as the first president of the new republic. He put a special emphasis on education, building thousands of schools.
“What impressed me was that during this most critical time, in the congress, they were hotly debating education reforms,” Sancar said. “They knew that creating a new country meant not just getting rid of the occupiers, it meant modernizing. It meant education.”
In the new republic, all children – boys and girls – would be required to go to school, and they would be educated to compete with the rest of the world. Scholarships would be merit-based so the smartest students would be able to go to college regardless of their family background.
That’s how Sancar, seventh child of illiterate parents in the southeastern village of Savur, completed his education through high school and went on to university and medical school, for free.
Turkish universities had on their faculty some of the best scientists in the world. Turkey was one of the few nations to give refuge to scholars who fled or were expelled from Nazi Germany. “These were the leading scientists in the world,” Sancar said. “They came over and really modernized the university system.”
When he decided to go into research, Sancar turned to the better-equipped laboratories of American universities, first the University of Texas at Dallas and now Carolina, where he is the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the School of Medicine. A dual citizen of Turkey and the United States, Sancar this year was honored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York in its annual “Great Immigrants: The Pride of America” initiative.
But he never forgot how much he owed his homeland.
“The U.S. is where I did my work, but Turkey really prepared me,” he said. “I thought my country had done a great job emphasizing the importance of an education. When I got the Nobel Prize, I thought about that.”
When the initial excitement of winning the Nobel died down, Sancar told his wife, Gwen, that he had decided to donate the original medal to Turkey. His American wife, a fellow research professor whom he met in Dallas, immediately understood why.
“She said, ‘Of course,’” Sancar recalled. “She knows the significance for the country.”
Sancar is Turkey’s second Nobel laureate.
The place Sancar had in mind for the display of the gold medal was at the museum that is part of Anıtkabir, Ataturk’s mausoleum. Displays related to progress in education and science in the Republican Era would lead up to Sancar’s Nobel medal. Sancar’s name is engraved below a scene depicting Nature holding a cornucopia, with her veil lifted by the Genius of Science. The inscription comes from the Aneid: “And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery.”
And so, on May 19 — the 97th anniversary of Atatürk initiating the Turkish War of Independence — Sancar donated his golden prize at a ceremony hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, as well as representatives from the parliament, the court and the military. The event was a rare show of unity in the politically fractured country.
A condition of Sancar’s donation was that it would be clear that “not any faction can own me,” he told them. “This was for the entire country. Left, right, middle – everybody.”
Along with the pomp of the national ceremony in his honor, Sancar also made a whirlwind speaking tour of the country, giving 20 talks in 21 days. His audience included high school students from all 80 provinces of Turkey.
As Sancar traveled, he also saw how much his Nobel Prize meant to the country. “They named two research institutes after me while I was there in May,” he said. In addition, his first medical clinic, his high school and several others now bear his name. Turkey even has a postage stamp with his face on it. “It was incredible. I thought, ‘Do I really deserve all this?’”
Everyone in Turkey knows Sancar’s name and his importance, it seems. When one of the people arranging his trip told a taxi driver he was in town doing work for Sancar, the driver refused to take his money.
One of the top research universities in Turkey will give a full scholarship bearing his name to a female student from his hometown, an honor that is “the one that really makes me happy,” Sancar said.
In return, he is giving the village of Savur one of the three gold-plated bronze replicas of the Nobel medal that each laureate is allowed to purchase. Another replica medal went to his medical school at Istanbul University.
That leaves just one more medal: the one currently on display at Davis Library. “It’s very inspiring to students,” said Sancar, who donated the medal to the University.
“It was part of my upbringing to pay that debt of gratitude to Ataturk. I also have a debt to this country,” he said. “I am grateful to UNC. I applied to 50 universities, and this was the only place that gave me a job.”
Sancar is also grateful for the Gardner award, established by the will of North Carolina Gov. O. Max Gardner.
“Anything that comes from UNC means a lot,” he said. “This is the highest award given by the University. You can’t get any better than that.”
Story by Susan Hudson, University Gazette. Photos by Jonathan Gardiner, Officer of Communications and Public Affairs.
Published July 29, 2016.