John Drescher

Drescher: When Duke and Carolina both won the big prize

Aziz Sancar, left, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine, and Paul Modrich, right, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for mechanistic studies of DNA repair along with Tomas Lindahl. They were photographed Tuesday, December 22, 2015 in the Genome Sciences Building on the UNC campus.
Aziz Sancar, left, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine, and Paul Modrich, right, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for mechanistic studies of DNA repair along with Tomas Lindahl. They were photographed Tuesday, December 22, 2015 in the Genome Sciences Building on the UNC campus. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Our 2015 Tar Heels of the Year, biochemists Paul Modrich of Duke and Aziz Sancar of UNC-Chapel Hill, are known internationally as winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Modrich and Sancar were in Sweden two weeks ago to receive their prize, which they shared with Tomas Lindahl of Sweden. Since their Nobel prize was announced in October, Modrich and Sancar have been besieged by requests for their time from well-wishers, journalists and others. So The News & Observer’s Martha Quillin, who was assigned to write profiles of each, had a challenge (or two challenges) in getting time with two hyper-busy men who avoid attention.

She was up for it. Quillin, 54, is a versatile reporter and graceful writer who has worked for The N&O for 29 years. She previously reported and wrote Tar Heel of the Year profiles on Durham architect Phil Freelon in 2009 and Raleigh architect Steve Schuster last year.

You can read Quillin’s profiles online now at newsobserver.com. If you prefer print, you can read the stories on Sunday’s front page. The profiles are accompanied by a nice joint portrait and video by The N&O’s Jill Knight.

“To accomplish the kind of work that will qualify someone as a Tar Heel of the Year, the person is by definition going to be a busy Type A, so it’s a challenge to get enough time to interview the person and to observe him in his element,” Quillin said.

“The ones I have written about also were all introverts; not only do they not seek personal attention outside their own fields for the work they do, they work very hard to avoid it.

“And though they politely agree to be the subject of the story, they have no idea of the level to which a reporter and photographer will want to invade their lives. So the reporter, especially, turns into kind of a stalker, following the subject around, sitting in on their meetings, looking over their shoulders, listening to their conversations, studying their body of work, interviewing their family and friends and co-workers.”

Those who have worked with Quillin know that if she is a stalker, she’s a polite and gracious stalker, although it’s true she followed up on the phone this week with a few more last-minute questions for each man.

Science rules

We named our first Tar Heel of the Year, banker Hugh McColl, in 1997. The recognition is an extension of one our most-loved features, the Tar Heel of the Week, which began in 1950 and surely is one of the longest-running newspaper features in the country.

In naming a Tar Heel of the Year, we’ve written about a historian (John Hope Franklin), ministers who do international relief work (Franklin Graham and Ray Buchanan), museum directors (Larry Wheeler and Betsy Bennett), philanthropists (Ann and Jim Goodnight), a lender to the working poor (Martin Eakes), an educator (Molly Broad), a judge (Howard Manning), a lawyer (Christine Mumma), a media mogul (Jim Goodmon) and a basketball coach (Kay Yow).

Modrich of Duke and Sancar of UNC are friends who admire each other’s work, have co-authored several papers and sometimes have dinner together.

But reflecting this research-oriented region, we’ve selected more scientists than any other occupation. Of our last 10 Tar Heels of the Year, six have been scientists (Joe DeSimone, Robert Lefkowitz, Myron Cohen, Mary-Dell Chilton, Modrich and Sancar).

That presented another challenge for Quillin, who has now written more Tar Heel of the Year profiles than any other N&O reporter. Her prior Tar Heel of the Year profiles were about architects.

“I have at least a working understanding of architecture; I’m fascinated by the way buildings are designed, assembled, used and reused,” she said. “While I am intrigued by many fields of science as well, much of it happens at a molecular level. I can’t see it, so it’s harder for me to understand, and I have to work harder to make sure I explain it correctly for readers.”

Tar Devils

This marks the second time we’ve recognized Duke and UNC scientists at the same time as Tar Heels of the Year. We did so in 2012 with Lefkowitz (Duke) and Cohen (UNC).

While the Duke-Carolina rivalry is intense on the court and field, professors from the two universities typically try to help each other. Modrich and Sancar are friends who admire each other’s work, have co-authored several papers and sometimes have dinner together.

“They both believe that science is a joint enterprise,” Quillin said. “It requires collaboration and cooperation, and every step builds on the work someone else has done, and will be taken further by scientists yet to come.”

When she writes profiles, Quillin is drawn to people with passion. That might be the one quality that all our Tar Heels of the Year have or had in common – a sustained passion for excellence in their fields.

“You have to have a passion for what you do to stay at it long enough that you somehow change the way it’s done, or the way it’s perceived, or the way it affects others,” Quillin said. “Freelon, Schuster, Modrich and Sancar all love their work and continue to be amazed by its possibilities after being engaged in it for decades.”

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, jdrescher@newsobserver.com, @john_drescher

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