As a professor, Dr. Aziz Sancar leads a pretty normal life. He spends a lot of time in his lab, and you might see him and his wife out on campus at a women’s soccer match. At home, however, he’s devoted to helping international students studying for the first time in the U.S.
And he’s kind of a big deal, both to his students and to other scientists. This year, he won a share of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on DNA repair.
We may not be aware of it, but our cells repair strands of DNA all the time. Whenever we’re outside, our DNA is damaged by ultraviolet light from the sun. Our cells usually have a way to fix these problems through a process called “nucleotide excision repair.” Sancar and his colleagues mapped out exactly how this works — with huge implications for cancer treatment.
From Turkey to Türk Evi
Born in a rural town in Turkey, Sancar could have been something else entirely. “To be honest, my main goal in life was to play soccer for the Turkish national team,” he told a reporter. “But I was about four inches [10 centimeters] too short to play goalkeeper.”
Instead, Sancar earned a medical degree from the University of Istanbul in 1969 and then followed a mentor to the University of Texas at Dallas for a doctoral program in molecular biology. There, he spent many late nights running experiments in the lab.
Despite his hard work, he told a university newspaper, “I had adjustment problems.” English was foreign to him, and American culture was challenging. But he persevered, met his wife and partner in biochemistry, Gwen Sancar, and moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a professor.
Throughout his career, he never forgot what it was like to adjust to life in the United States. So in 2007, he and his wife founded Carolina Türk Evi, or “Turkish House,” through the Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation. It was a dream come true.
The house in Chapel Hill is a home for Turkish scholars and a place for American students to learn more about Turkey. Four students making their initial transition to U.S. life can rent a room from a professor who’s experienced similar challenges. After the first year, Sancar says, students are ready to move into the community.
“The day I stepped off the airplane in Dallas, Texas,” he said, “I promised myself to eventually dedicate my resources to a project of this kind.”
In addition to helping new students adjust, Türk Evi brings Turkish culture to the entire campus. Yekta Zulfikar, a former president of the UNC Turkish Student Association, said the Sancars have supported all of her campus events.
“My favorite memory, though, is from when we organized a celebration for the Independence Day of Turkey,” she said. The house was filled with Turkish treats, a cappella singing, and the sounds of students talking.
Throughout the academic year, the Sancars host lectures, musical performances and the occasional cooking class to bring a taste of Turkey to the campus community.
College is a great time to seek out new cultural experiences and find a mentor. You never know — sometimes that professor you met at a soccer match or campus festival might have won a Nobel Prize.