A night at the Turk Evi (Turkish House) with Aziz Sancar. Conversation led by UNC and Duke Turkish Instructor Didem Havlioglu. photo by Donn Young, courtesy UNC Global


photo by Donn Young, courtesy UNC Global

The people from the Nobel Committee called UNC-Chapel Hill professor Aziz Sancar at 5am on October 7, 2015. His wife Gwen, also a UNC-Chapel Hill professor was already up ahead of an early class.

“Gwen is Texan and Texans are Texan. So, she recognized the foreign accent, and it looked like a long distance call, and she said mister do you know what time it is in Chapel Hill?” said Sancar to huge laughter. “And the gentleman said yes I do. But he said it is an important call, that’s why I’m calling. And she (Gwen) said if it’s an important call you tell me, I’m his wife. And he said I can’t really tell you. I have to tell him. But I can tell you it’s from Stockholm…”

On a crisp night last month nearly all 22 students learning Turkish at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University took advantage of a unique opportunity to practice their Turkish with Nobel prize winner Aziz Sancar at his Türk Evi  (Turkish House), and learn about the UNC scientist’s decades long personal and professional journey to the Nobel.

Their conversation, over a buffet dinner, was led by Duke Turkish lecturing fellow Didem Havlioglu and also included comments by Gwen Sancar. They may be rivals in basketball, but Duke and UNC students and faculty across disciplines regularly mix in research settings, and at academic conferences, events and social occasions. The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, for example, is a National Resource Center that encourages collaboration and cooperation across the two campuses.

Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and the second Nobel Laureate at UNC-Chapel Hill, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry — along with colleagues Tomas Lindahl of the UK, and Paul Modrich of Duke University — for groundbreaking work in mapping DNA repair. Colleagues say Sancar’s research into DNA Repair, cell cycle and cancer treatment, and the (Circadian) biological clock has improved understanding of the basic biology of cancer and aging.

A replica of Sancar’s Nobel medal, together with a replica of the 2007 Nobel medal in physiology or medicine awarded to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Oliver Smithies, will go on display in an official ceremony next week (April 13) at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Davis Library — with the two Nobel Laureates in attendance. Another of Sancar’s replicas will be displayed at his alma mater — the University of Istanbul Medical School.

Sancar decided to donate his entire share of the Nobel Prize money, in excess of $310,000, to the Aziz & Gwen Sancar Foundation that he runs with Gwen, who teaches in the biochemistry and biophysics department. Their foundation was organized for educational and charitable purposes to increase understanding of Turkey and to promote closer ties between the United States and Turkey. The foundation owns and runs the Türk Evi where the dinner party with students was held— a Turkish center located just off campus that hosts cultural events and provides housing for a small number of Turkish students and visiting scholars adjusting to university life in the U.S.

After 34 years teaching at UNC, it’s hard to imagine now that life in the U.S. for Sancar was once difficult.

Not commonly found in his biography is the trouble he had adjusting to American culture during his time at Johns Hopkins as a post-graduate researcher on a NATO scholarship in 1972 — his first time in the U.S. Or of his thwarted soccer ambitions as a youth. Or of his honorable work as a country doctor in Turkey. Yet those experiences had a significant effect on his career path and his educational and charitable work.

Born in Mardin in southeastern Turkey in 1946, Sancar said he was a good student from first grade on, and “like all kids in the rest of the world I played soccer.”  He was a very good goal keeper and he played on his high school soccer team and for an amateur soccer club called Mesopotamia.

He said at one point he was invited to try out for the under-18 national team.

“For me having the star and crescent on my chest was very important, and is still very important, and I really wanted to do that,” he told the Duke and UNC students. But he didn’t try out because “goalkeepers have to be at least four inches taller and bulkier.”

Instead he went Istanbul University Medical School, finishing at the top of his class of more than 600 students. Following his 1969 graduation he practiced medicine for two years in his home town. He did everything from delivering babies to performing autopsies. Most of the people he served were seeing a doctor for the first time in their lives.

“You would have a six month old, a 50 year-old with a simple infection, you give a penicillin, an antibiotic, you save a life,” he said. “And I don’t think there is anything, at least in my experience, in life as satisfying as doing that. So I think those two years were the happiest years of my life.”

However, ambition coupled with frustration with the way medicine is practiced (“doctors are highly trained technicians … there is really no creativity”) propelled him back to school. He wanted to know the why behind diseases and how to develop new treatments.

For example, he said it bothered him that a doctor might treat tubercular patients with streptomycin, but that no one could explain why that particular antibiotic worked and penicillin didn’t.

So when an opportunity came for him to leave Turkey for Johns Hopkins, he took it. But it was his first time living in the U.S., and the culture shock hit him hard.

“First of all my foreign language in high school was French. So in my last year of medical school I learned some English from Peace Corps volunteers, [but]  couldn’t converse in English,” he said. “So I come to Johns Hopkins. They have this guy who can’t speak English. So they said What are you doing here? I said, Well my foreign language is French, and they said OK, we will find you a translator. I said I don’t want translator, I’m confused enough.”

Added to that, he said that with the U.S. space program taking off, he found that many Americans he encountered at the university had an air of superiority about them; that “we are number one.”

“So I come here, I grew up in a nationalism environment, my family’s not like that, (but) I come to Johns Hopkins, I have this attitude that Turks are superior to everybody,” Sancar said.  “And I remember discussing my research with my professors. I go to them and tell them let’s put this, this and that. And once, twice, three times (my professor) said Who is the professor and who is the student?”

GWEN AND AZIZ SANCAR IN FRONT OF THE TURK EVI (TURKISH HOUSE) photo courtesy of Aziz & Gwen Sancar Foundation

Sancar described Hopkins as “a very exciting place” with “some of the best minds in the world” and where he was determined to be “number 1” himself. Totally isolated, all he did was work day and night, even sleeping in the lab. This kind of life, he said, contributed to a “serious psychological problem.” He had turned off his American colleagues, he said, with his “obnoxious attitude” and he didn’t have a support group of fellow Turks.

After being at Johns Hopkins for 16 months, Sancar returned home to Turkey to practice medicine.

“The shock that I had at Johns Hopkins, the total isolation from friends from Turkish friends, I think that was a lesson,” he said.  “When students come here from Turkey or other foreign countries they need a support group. And that’s why I thought the Türk Evi should be a place where we can provide a support group for students who’ve just come from Turkey, so that they don’t go through the difficulty that I went through that was horrible.”

The Sancars said they’re looking to expand by building a new cross-cultural community center that will attract Americans to learn about Turkey and Turkish history. There they’ll be able to do more events, including commemorations of national and religious holidays and Turkish language, dancing and cooking classes.

“I think I’ve said it many times, many Americans I met, including Gwen, had never met a Turk. They had no notion of a Turk,” said Sancar. “They didn’t know whether Turks speak Persian or Arabic or whatever. And so for me equally important, is to educate my adopted country, Americans, about Turkey, and so that’s the other point of this space.”

The Rest Is History

Sancar didn’t stay in Turkey for long. While there he thought about a seminar he’d attended at Johns Hopkins by University of Texas at Dallas scientist Claud “Stan” Rupert who’d worked on light-activated DNA repair. So Sancar wrote Rupert asking if he could come work with him. As he described it, Rupert must have been skeptical about receiving such a letter from “a guy from Turkey who was at Johns Hopkins for awhile, and quit,” and wanted to work with him.

“He didn’t really know what to think of me,” said Sancar, laughing. “He’s a very kind person, one of the best persons that I ever met, and he could not say no, don’t come. He sent a letter and the spirit said no, but the text didn’t say no. So I just got on a plane and went to Texas and I said you know I got your letter and it was really not clear what you meant by that letter and I assumed it said I can come and work, and he said well you are here.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Sancar would go on to obtain a PhD in molecular biology in 1977 from the University of Texas at Dallas, and to conduct postdoctoral work at Yale University on the molecular biology of DNA repair (1977-1982), before joining the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1982.

Rupert was the first person Sancar called after he found out he’d gotten the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Sancar recently went to Texas to celebrate Rupert’s 97th birthday.

Sancar told the students he was not surprised to get the Nobel Prize, but he was surprised that he got the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

“I don’t want to express false modesty. I knew that I had done Nobel quality work and so Nobel did not come as surprise to me, but I was expecting it more in medicine because my work on the circadian clock for example is a medical issue and DNA repair protects us from cancer caused by sunlight, by cigarettes … it’s important for cancer treatment, so I was expecting it in medicine,” he said, explaining that the Nobel Prize in medicine had passed him by the day before.

His work, which is an interface of chemistry and medicine, did however qualify for the chemistry Nobel.  Sancar is adamant that as promising as his discovery is for helping to find an eventual cure for cancer, he’d like to see as much emphasis on cancer prevention.

“Smoking damages DNA, causes cancer, and the enzyme I work on repairs that damage but if you keep smoking, it cannot keep up and eventually the mutation gets cancer,” he said, noting that 30 percent of cancer deaths are caused by smoking.

On the way to Stockholm with his wife and god-daughter to pick up his Nobel last December Sancar got some indirect advice through his limo drive about preparing his Nobel speech. Ironically, the advice came from 2003 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry Peter Agre, who while at Duke (2005-2008) had used the same car service as Sancar continues to use. His driver, who’d been given a copy of Agre’s speech, told Sancar how Agre believed it was important to give the field credit, to list acknowledgments at the beginning of the Nobel speech before people get tired.

So that’s what Sancar did. “I think my first sentence was (something like) Science was not done in a vacuum. It’s done with benefit from predecessors and from our contemporaries,” he said.


Sancar said he was once asked if he would take 10 million dollars for allowing someone else to say they discovered what he discovered. His answer was unequivocally no.

“About the value of discovery — you know that you’ve done it, you know you’ve found something that was important and you’re the first one to know it,” he told the students. “So Nobel is good, but I don’t think anything compares to that (the discovery).

At the event, Duke neuroscience student Allison Kamasked Sancar if there was ever at time that he wanted to stop doing DNA repair research. (She joked that she herself first got interested in Turkey when she went on a study abroad trip to Istanbul to take a break from lab work.)

“Yes actually there was,” he answered. “Because you work on a subject in science and it becomes mature, and the more work you do there are less things to discover … and your heart is not into it anymore. It happened to me in 1997.”

He said he got to a point in the research where his team was stuck. He took a break and went on his annual trip to Turkey. On the airplane back to the U.S. he read an article in the in-flight magazine about jet lag and the circadian clock — the internal clock that regulates all our physiology and behavior and that’s sensitive to blue light. When that clock and the environment are not in accord, we get jet lag.

“So I came home to Chapel Hill, and I said I think this protein that’s like a repair enzyme that doesn’t repair DNA, I think it’s a circadian clock protein. And that gave a new life to our lab,” he said.

Now 69, Sancar’s been working on DNA repair research for 42 years — that’s most of his adult life. He considers himself fortunate that he’s worked on two types of DNA repair and the circadian clock. He said that in his Nobel lecture he was able to show all three on one slide.

Shortly after the December Nobel ceremony in Sweden, he and Gwen flew to Turkey to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar. There was a special dinner given in his honor. Sancar is only the second Turk to receive the Nobel Prize. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, and he and Sancar had a chance to meet when Pamuk gave a talk at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art this past November.

Sancar allowed Gen. Akar to hold onto his Nobel medal until it can be officially presented at the Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. That will take place in an official ceremony on May 19, 2016 — on the date of a national holiday commemorating the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence.

“I’ve said it to Turkish media repeatedly, that I owe this medal and this success to the educational reforms that Atatürk and his colleagues did, so that’s the most appropriate place for it,” he said.

Sancar’s advice to Turkish students is to go abroad, to the U.S. or Europe, and get an education like he did, whether in science or the humanities, but he said they owe it to their country to go back. After he got his PhD 30 plus years ago he said he thought about going back to Turkey and doing research in molecular biology and biochemistry but the opportunities weren’t there. Now, Sancar says the situation is changed and there are first-rate scientists in molecular biology in Turkey, including the Izmir Science, Biomedicine and Genomics Center, competitive with Europe, but not matching the work in science being done at UNC and Duke.

Students and faculty mingle at the buffet table set with mermicek koftesi (lentil patties), yaprak dolmasi (stuffed grape leaves), tavuk sis (chicken shish kebab), iskender (lamb kebab), ispanakli pide (spinach pizza), tavuklu pide (chicken pizza), and for dessert kazandibi (burned milk pudding) and baklava (nutty pastry). One student asked Sancar what his favorite food was. Sancar, in his words “not a typical Turk,” is a vegetarian. He said his favorites are gözleme (a fried egg and herb pastry fast food), simit (sesame bread) and figs. photo by Donn Young, courtesy UNC Global

Why Turkish?

UNC-Chapel Hill currently hosts approximately 100 students and scholars from Turkey, but their involvement with the Türk Evi and UNC’s Turkish Student Association varies from year to year said Sancar, explaining that when the association has a non-Turk president, the association tends to be more active.

There are four students currently staying at the Türk Evi, including Mehmet, a 2005 graduate of Bilkent University who’s been working at the Central Bank of Turkey and is enrolled in a two-year MBA program at UNC. The Turkish community in the Triangle area is relatively small with around 300-400 Turkish American families, and there are around 300 Turkish students enrolled at area universities.

Cemil Aydin, who teaches Middle East history and modern Asian history at UNC, would like to see a stronger program in Turkish studies between Duke and UNC in partnership with universities in Turkey in an effort to “create brain circulation rather than brain drain.”

He wants more students and visiting scholars from Turkey coming to the Triangle to stay, join a lab or another department, work a couple years and then return to Turkey. Likewise, he would like for faculty from here to continue to go to Turkey and teach, as Duke professors miriam cooke and Bruce Lawrence have done.

This is the first year that Turkish has been offered at UNC and Duke, and the classes on both campuses are being taught by the same instructor — Didem Havlioglu.

In an interview last fall with ISLAMiCommentary she said that more and more students are interested in studying Turkish because of their interest in Middle East history and culture, and that the study abroad programs in Turkey are big initiators of this interest.

“I believe, learning Turkish, just like any other language and culture can be instrumental in students’ ability to become world citizens where there are more differences than similarities,” she said. “I believe my students are the people who will change the way we think about borders that make people apart.”

Michael McDonough, a UNC sophomore who hopes to double major in global studies and economics and become a political risk analyst, said he thought his best shot at fluency would be to learn a language that didn’t require him to learn a new alphabet, and Turkish fit that bill.

“Although I started just for purely practical reasons, through [Havlioglu] I’ve become interested in Turkish culture,” said McDonough who missed the dinner but was eager to talk later about his experience with the Turkish language. “She introduced our class to Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winning Turkish author, and my goal is to be able to read his novel Benim Adım Kırmızı in Turkish by the time I have graduated.”

The Duke and UNC students in attendance enjoyed hearing Sancar’s stories and asked a lot of questions. Time went by fast. The evening program closed with the students as subjects. Havlioglu invited them to one-by-one say what interested them in Turkey and the Turkish language.

Study abroad was a draw for many. There is an active cohort of Duke students studying at the elite universities in Turkey, both during the school year and in the summers.

Duke’s programs in Istanbul prompted an engineering major to switch her major to public policy, a global health and philosophy double major to add Turkish as a minor, and a computer science and economics major learning Arabic to add Turkish classes.

Another Duke student studying international studies and linguistics added Turkish to French after spending time in Cyprus. A Duke PhD candidate in English added Turkish to complete his dissertation on members of the American suffrage movement traveling after 1865 to places identified as haram.

One Duke student said she became interested in Turkey after taking Duke professor Erdağ Göknar’s class during her first semester. She did a study abroad there and just completed her thesis on U.S. foreign policy toward Turkey and the Kurdish question.

Göknar, who also directs the Duke Middle East Studies Center, teaches the only exclusively Turkish content courses at Duke — geopolitics & culture, and contemporary Turkish readings. At UNC, topics related to Turkey are covered in a number of courses.

UNC students taking Turkish include a second-year psychology student who’d visited Turkey on a layover to Bangladesh, a second year global studies MA student focused on European history and Turkey’s relationship with the EU, a student writing her honors thesis on representation of women’s bodies in Turkish women’s magazines, a first-year political science student “interested in the political culture in Turkey,” and a senior global studies and public policy major who came to a previous event at the Türk Evi that broadened her perspective on the country.

Liam Deering, a student in the TransAtlantic Masters program at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for European Studies has taken classes in five languages and will be spending the final year of his program at the VU University in Amsterdam, where he’s hoping to continue studying Turkish. He applied for a summer FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship to travel to Istanbul.

He appreciated hearing about how Sancar’s “background has affected his career accomplishments,” and like the rest of the students, sampling a variety of Turkish foods.

Two Turkish American brothers attending UNC — a junior majoring in economics and a freshman interested in chemistry — and a UNC pre-pharmacy student from Iraq whose family speaks Iraqi-Turkman chose Turkish class to improve their language skills.

Jiani Wang, a PhD student at the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, China, is a visiting researcher at Duke this year working with Arab cultures professor miriam cooke.  She said it’s been her “dream even from my childhood” to know more about Turkey, its culture, people and language, and that’s why she’s studying Turkish here.

She thought the most interesting thing that Sancar said, in response to a question, was about his love for books, especially considering he’s a biochemist who works on gene repair. Sancar said he reads mostly Ottoman and Turkish Republic history, and recommends an objective two-volume history by family friend Stanford Shaw. He and Gwen also enjoy a good medieval mystery.

Wang enjoyed the chance to meet UNC students and learn why other students were interested in Turkey and Turkish language.

“This is impressive and meaningful for my experience in United States and makes me love studying Turkish more and deeper,” said Wang.

Said Havlioglu after the Sancar event had ended. “As an international student himself, Prof. Sancar shared his story with us to show that language and cultural competence are valuable assets for any scholar. His unconventional success story is inspirational for all of us, faculty and students, regardless of our area of study.”



More on the Duke in Istanbul program: The Duke Office of Global Education’s Duke in Istanbul program, based at the campus of Boğaziçi University Istanbul, Turkey, introduces cultural, historical and religious issues emerging at the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, with particular attention to the unique position of Turkey within the global context. Students take one course with the Duke program director and one course in Turkish language. The remaining two classes are electives chosen from the departments of hiistory, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science, among others. The language of instruction at the university is English, so no previous Turkish language study is required. Students live in the university’s newest dormitory, the Superdorm. In addition to day trips throughout the course of the semester, the program features at least one weeklong trip outside of Istanbul.

Here are some photos taken in Turkey by Duke in Istanbul Fall 2015 participants Duke students Sid Gopinath and Allison Kam. Click on any one photo to enlarge and scroll through the slideshow.

Sid and Luc give it their best shot The marina in Antalya, Turkey Lamp store in Antalya The bazaar in Antalya, Turkey A lady and the domes on an Istanbul rooftop Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge Istanbul Ashima, Mariana, and Tunde at the Mevlana Museum Istanbul The gorgeous and awe-inspiring New Mosque stands tall in Istanbul, Turkey Outside the New Mosque The New Mosque The Hagia Sophia The Hagia Sophia Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia The Hagia Sophia Women gathered at the mosque The Basilica Cistern A room in the Topkapi Palace Mosaics in the Topkapi Palace A Christian church in Turkey Prince's Island, Turkey Istiklal Street; one of the most famous avenues in Istanbul, Turkey

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