UNC Nobel laureates Oliver Smithies and Aziz Sancar present medals to UNC

Sancar, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, donated his prize money to a Chapel Hill foundation. Smithies donated his monetary award to four universities, including UNC.

UNC Nobel laureates Oliver Smithies and Aziz Sancar present medals to UNC click to enlarge Nobel medals, now on display at the Davis Library (Photo by Jon Gardiner, UNC-Chapel Hill)
UNC Nobel laureates Oliver Smithies and Aziz Sancar present medals to UNC click to enlarge A crowd of hundreds filled Davis Library to honor Oliver Smithies and Aziz Sancar, who both donated Nobel Prize medals to the university. (Photo by Jon Gardiner, UNC-Chapel Hill)

By Mark Derewicz

CHAPEL HILL, NC – “I don’t go to work every day; I go to play every day. And that’s my advice to students here today: find something you love so much that you can say – as I can say – I never did a day’s work in my life.”

That was the message of Oliver Smithies, DPhil, at a ceremony honoring him and fellow Nobel Prize laureate Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD, both of whom presented gold-plated bronze replica Nobel Prize medals to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Wednesday at a Davis Library gathering of hundreds of colleagues, students, UNC staff, media, and community members.

Smithies, the Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his pioneering work on gene targeting and knockout mice, techniques that gave researchers the ability to study diseases like never before.

In a short speech, Smithies, now 90, said, “I still find the day-to-day work – or I should say play – very enjoyable. I just did an experiment this morning and I expect to do another one this afternoon because I wasn’t quite satisfied with the one this morning; I should just say it didn’t work . . . but it was well done.”

In her introduction to both Nobel laureates, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt, said, “When you talk to both of them and see how joyful they are about the work they do, it confirms in our minds that we all do our work because we love it, and that’s a hallmark of a great educational place.” 

Smithies, Oliver
Oliver Smithies, DPhil, UNC School of Medicine (photo by Jon Gardiner, UNC-Chapel Hill

Then she shared little-known story about the time she asked them how they joined the UNC faculty: “Dr. Smithies said UNC recruited his wife Nobuyo Maeda, also a researcher in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine. He said, ‘I was the trailing spouse that UNC also hired.” 

Folt added, “And as Dr. Smithies told this story, I could see how happy Dr. Sancar was, and I asked him why. He said he was the person who led the search committee to hire Dr. Maeda and arrange to bring Dr. Smithies to UNC, as well. Then Dr. Sancar said, ‘So, I think I helped bring two Nobel Prize winners to UNC.’" 

After winning the Nobel Prize in 2007, Smithies donated equal amounts of his monetary prize of approximately $310,000 to his alma mater Balliol College in Oxford and the three places he spent his research career: the University of Toronto, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work mapping the cellular mechanisms that underlie DNA repair, which occurs in all of us every day in response to damage caused by outside forces, such as ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors.

Sancar, Aziz
Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD, UNC School of Medicine (Photo by Jon Gardiner, UNC-Chapel Hill)

“As opposed to Dr. Smithies, I’m not very good in the lab,” Sancar said at Wednesday’s event. “I’m not good with my hands. So, most of the work that won us the Nobel Prize was done by graduate students and postdocs, some of whom are here today. And I’m very grateful to them all.”

Sancar, who is from Turkey and has been a professor at UNC since 1982, also thanked his wife Gwen Sancar, PhD, herself a professor of biochemistry and biophysics, not only for her support but for being a critical research partner early in his career,

Sancar donated the entire $310,000 prize award to the Aziz & Gwen Sancar Foundation of Chapel Hill. The couple bought a house on Franklin Street near downtown Chapel Hill several years ago as part of their foundation. The goal was to create a cultural center for international students and scholars close to campus, an idea that dates back to Sancar’s days as a foreign-born graduate student.

“The day I stepped off the airplane in Dallas, I essentially saw the need for such houses on college campuses and promised myself to eventually dedicate my resources to a project of this kind.”

The cultural center is named “Carolina Turk Evi,” and is owned by the Aziz & Gwen Sancar Foundation. The center provides graduate housing for Turkish researchers at UNC, as well as short-term guest services for Turkish visiting scholars. UNC currently hosts approximately 100 Turkish students and scholars. These individuals occasionally have difficulty adapting to American culture. One aim of Carolina Turk Evi is to facilitate their transition. 

Another key aim of the foundation is to promote a cultural exchange between Turkey and the United States.

“I believe strongly that we are all more similar than we are different,” Sancar said. “If we take the time or have the opportunity to learn about one another – to promote friendship and understanding – then we won’t have as many conflicts in our personal lives or between nations.”

As part of the Nobel Prize ceremonies last December, Sancar was given a solid gold Nobel Prize medal and three replica medals. He donated the original medal to Turkey to be displayed at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey and the country’s first president.

“I give credit to Ataturk for creating an educational system that would allow a kid from a small, rural place to receive a quality education, go to medical school, and pursue research at the highest level,” Sancar said. “I gave the medal to the mausoleum to honor this and to hopefully inspire the youth of Turkey who might wonder what they can accomplish in science if they work hard.”

The University of North Carolina communications team produced this short video of the event.

For more information on Aziz Sancar, check out this video and a story about his climb from graduate student to Nobel Prize winner. For more on the career of Oliver Smithies, check out this feature in Endeavors magazine.

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