A Nobel prize and the unknown benefits that come from saying yes

Aziz Sancar delivering his Nobel Lecture for his prize in Chemistry 2015. He said yes.

My early morning wakeup on Wednesday, October 7, 2015 began as usual with a, though admittedly not healthy, quick Twitter check. My internet-induced squint widened when I saw that Aziz Sancar was trending. Dr. Sancar had just been named co-winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on DNA repair mechanisms. Not at all surprised by the recognition of his career achievements, I was, however, flabbergasted because I actually know Aziz Sancar and in no small way, my career is what it is because of his generosity and kindness.

Twenty years ago, I was an MSc candidate studying the physiological ecology of amphibians at Trent University. At the time I was working with Michael Berrill on replicating and testing the findings of a 1994 PNAS paper by Andrew Blaustein and company. This was important work on declining amphibian populations in the Cascade Mountains. They found that these declining populations were characterised by low levels of a DNA repair enzyme called photolyase. This finding was intriguing because photolyase catalyses the repair of the principal form of damage to DNA from ultraviolet-b radiation. Because emerging ozone holes would result in natural populations experiencing an increased amount of UVB radiation, low levels of photolyase might be a “magic bullet” that explained which populations would be in decline in otherwise “pristine” areas.

Intriguing, but I was actually not ready to test it. With a potent combination of naïve enthusiasm, I figured I could simply contact the authors of the paper and ask them to teach me the methods that I needed to know to further their work. I tried email but could not find an address on the department website. So I phoned the Department of Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They explained that Dr. Sancar did not want or have an email address. I asked that the call be connected to his office. When he picked up the phone, I leapt immediately into my explanation that I was an MSc student from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, and that I was hoping to visit his lab to learn methods of photolyase extraction that I would apply to my system. To my now weathered academic amazement, but, at the time, only to my joy, immediately and without hesitation, he said yes. If I could get myself to Chapel Hill, he would teach me what I needed to know.

Alex Smith with hair studying amphibian photolysase induction and concentration in the late 20th century.

Alex Smith with hair studying amphibian photolysase induction and concentration in the late 20th century.

So on my spring break of 1997, I rented a car (two cars actually – one died, another story) and drove from snowy Peterpatch to the flowering springtime of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to spend a week in Dr. Sancar’s lab. “Lab” didn’t quite cover it. Dr.’s Sancar (he and his wife, Dr. Gendolyn Sancar) had a floor of the building at UNC. Dr. Sancar met me on that Monday morning and arranged for a postdoc and a PhD student to help me all week and ensure that I could extract and purify the enzyme. He even arranged for another lab to give me some African clawed frog eggs to practice on! He met with me every day to see how I was progressing and answer any questions. I remember him encouraging me to take in a UNC NCAA women’s basketball game while in Chapel Hill (Tar Heels!), and I was very impressed that this academic superman was often watching soccer in his office when I arrived (the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League, I think). A man of many interests! I left at the end of the week and proceeded to apply these methods successfully in my MSc. Three papers (Smith 2000, Smith et al 2000, and Smith et al 2002), eventually came from this project and one of the principal findings was that this enzymatic system could be induced in individuals from natural populations (previously not considered – and something that dramatically affects ones’ estimation of a populations’ photolyase level).

In my paper I was very critical of previous research – and not surprisingly, the manuscript received quite harsh and negative reviews. I had never written a response to reviewer comments before, and I did not craft them elegantly or with appreciation. Dr. Sancar was the editor at the journal handling the submission. He phoned me to suggest how I might better word my response. Connecting the phone call alone was no easy feat considering I was living in my car at the time, couch-surfing amongst friends on the west coast of North America – I’m still not sure how he managed to find me. But the advice was priceless and likely not something I would have come to on my own (let’s say it was something along the lines of…“I can hear that you’re angry by these comments, and they are not elegant – but you can’t say what you’ve said. What you mean is this……..so try expressing it like this….”). I was so appreciative, and now 20 years later I’m not sure I expressed my gratitude sufficiently.

And so, fast forward 20 years when I wake to read that the world has recognised Aziz Sancar for his pioneering work in the broad field of DNA repair. It made me think about the often unappreciated or unintended effects that saying yes can have on those around you.

At the end of his Nobel Lecture in Sweden in December 2015, Dr. Sancar showed a slide acknowledging his lab and colleagues. In part, these people and their output are the metrics that the Nobel committee evaluated in awarding him the prize. It was an impressive, but I knew not an exhaustive, list, for Dr. Sancar’s direct effect on my career – and indirectly then on all the students I have worked with in the subsequent years – was invisible to the Nobel committee (and perhaps not even remembered by Dr. Sancar). But these effects are significant and they came from a busy scientist saying yes when confronted with a naïve but enthusiastic student. There were many reasons for him to not take my call, not encourage me to come to North Carolina, not host me while I was there nor mentor me through the review process later on. But he did. He did say yes and it had an immeasurable effect.

I now work with insects in the neotropics and Canada on questions of biodiversity. I don’t work with photolyase and I don’t work as a physiological ecologist. However, by saying yes to me 20 years ago, Dr. Sancar’s act of generosity enabled me to follow this path. In the over-scheduled and busy lifestyle that we lead, it is important to consider this ripple that saying yes can have. There are many intended and measurable outcomes of supervision and mentoring – however there are many, perhaps more, unintended and important effects that kindness can have. As Anne Galloway said on Twitter, “We’re all smart – distinguish yourself by being kind”. The Nobel committee judged Dr. Sancar’s academic output worthy of its highest award last year. They were likely unaware of the affect that he has had in other scientific disciplines through his generosity and kindness.


I don’t think I said it clearly enough before. Thank you Dr. Sancar.


Dr. Alex Smith
Department of Integrative Biology,
University of Guelph

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