After winning the Presidential Young Investigator Award, the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry and now UNC’s Oliver Max Gardner Award, Dr. Aziz Sancar said he tries to stay humble.
“I prayed to the almighty God to protect me from one of the worst seven deadly sins – pride.”
Sancar is the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC’s School of Medicine. He shared his thoughts on both the Gardner Award and the Nobel Prize in front of coworkers, family and friends during the Board of Governor’s meeting on July 29.
“I try to be what I’ve been all my life,” Sancar said. “I’m a hard worker, and I try not to let the Nobel Prize go to my head.”
Each year the UNC Board of Governors honors faculty members from the 17 system schools who have made the “greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” The O. Max Gardner Award is considered the highest faculty honor and includes a $20,000 cash prize.
Roger Aiken is the chairman of the award’s selection committee, and said Sancar’s work in mapping DNA repair was a significant contribution to modern biology.
“Last year, he and his team created a DNA repair map of the entire human genome,” Aiken said. “His work on mapping the mechanism that underlies DNA repair which occurs every single day due to outside forces such as ultra violet radiation and other environmental factors, earned Dr. Sancar the 2015 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Last fall, he was honored in Stockholm Sweden by the Nobel Foundation.”
Aiken played a short video about Sancar that highlighted his love of soccer, his childhood in Turkey and, most of all, his scientific achievements.
“To acknowledge a steady stream of his remarkable discoveries that yield enormous benefits to the human race, the Board of Governors is honored to name Dr. Aziz Sancar as the 2016 recipient of the Oliver Max Gardner Award,” Aiken said.
UNC System President Margaret Spellings welcomed Sancar to the podium to share his thoughts.
“First of all I want to thank the Gardner Family for establishing this award,” Sancar said. “It means a lot to the faculty to feel like they are appreciated by the University System and by the people of North Carolina. It means a lot to me.”
Several of his colleagues attended the meeting, including post doctorial fellows, research associates and lab assistants. Sancar spoke proudly of his Turkish heritage and thanked the Board of Governors, Chancellor Folt and other university officials for showing unbiased support of his work.
“This is a progressive state that values contributions to North Carolina and to the United States, regardless of your background, where you were born or what your religion was.”
Sancar talked about the day he found out about winning the Nobel Prize. He recalled the 5 a.m. phone call from Stockholm congratulating him, but more fondly, he remembered a humble encounter on the street.
“This young lady on her bicycle stopped and looked at me,” Sancar said. “And she said, ‘Dr. Sancar, good job.’ I’ve gotten all kinds of congratulations, but that really… I liked it a lot.”
Sancar said that small moments like these stand out among the flashy banners and ceremonies he’s attended in the last year. But sharing the prize with a fellow scientist at Duke hasn’t changed his feelings toward the Blue Devils.
“The only other thing that I remember from that day was sharing the Nobel Prize with my friend from Duke, Paul Modrich. I’ve been nominating him for the Nobel Prize for 10 years before this happened, so he is a really close friend, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hate Duke.”
Sancar ended his speech with gratitude for his research team and a humble acceptance of the award.
“There are many people who have contributed in my home country and who are here, my colleagues, my administrators and I’m grateful to all of them. So it is with humility and gratitude that I accept the Max Gardener award. Thank you very much.”
A video about Sancar’s life will be made available via UNC-TV this fall.