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Woman of the Year 'a wonderful example' to students, colleagues

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Hayat Onyuksel and her colleagues
“She encourages her students to grow, both personally and professionally."
Photo: Grant Therkildsen

Wonderful. Inspiring. Focused.

It seems her colleagues and students can’t say enough good things about Hayat Onyuksel, UIC’s Woman of the Year.

Onyuksel, professor of pharmaceutics and bioengineering, will be honored for her commitment to women at UIC at a reception Tuesday from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Chicago Illini Union, hosted by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women.

As a woman in a predominantly male field and one of only three women who are full professors in the College of Pharmacy, Onyuksel provides encouragement and advice to graduate students and younger faculty.

“She’s a wonderful example,” said Debra Tonetti, assistant professor of pharmacology.

Onyuksel was on the search committee that selected Tonetti for her first tenure-track position; since then, she’s given her helpful suggestions on working toward tenure.

“She’s been through it. She tells it like it is,” said Tonetti, whose research focuses on tamoxifin resistance.

Onyuksel can point to a long, and still growing, list of professional accomplishments.

Named UIC Inventor of the Year last spring, her research has led to at least eight patents. Two start-up companies are based on her inventions.

Her research focuses on making drugs less toxic and more effective, finding ways to target them directly to the diseased tissues without harming healthy cells. She is developing drug delivery systems that can send drugs to a cell, organ or tumor to treat diseases such as breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

Her success can be measured in other ways, as well.

As director of graduate studies in her department, she’s a mentor for students who have gone on to successful careers in science, such as Sharon Ayd, chief operating officer for the biopharmaceutical company Advanced Life Sciences.

Onyuksel “was always the one who was rooting for me,” Ayd said. “My success was her success.”

Carol Kirchhoff was a research scientist at Searle Corp. when she met Onyuksel on a collaborative project.

The experience led Kirchhoff to the College of Pharmacy, where she’s a doctoral candidate preparing to defend her dissertation – with a position as senior pharmaceutical scientist awaiting her at Pfizer Corp.

Kirchhoff’s research in Onyuksel’s lab concerns protein interaction with lipids.

“She’s always interested in my project,” Kirchhoff said.

One reason for her graduate students’ successes? She teaches them to write papers, conduct effective research and treats them like colleagues, said William Beck, head of biopharmaceutical sciences and professor of pharmacology and molecular genetics.

She’s also approachable and down-to-earth.

“I can go to her with concerns and problems,” Kirchhoff said.

When Kirchhoff faced surgery that meant a five-week recovery, Onyuksel didn’t hesitate to reschedule a class final.

“She is very concerned about her students’ well-being,” Kirchhoff said.

A native of Turkey, Onyuksel came to UIC in 1985 for a temporary research project. At the end of the summer, she decided to remain in Chicago – leaving family, friends and a permanent faculty position at Ankara University.

“It was so exciting that I wanted to stay,” she said. “I could see potential here.”

During her first three years here she married, had a son and joined the College of Pharmacy faculty as an assistant professor.

“It was not easy at all,” she said. “But things worked out fine.”

Beck said he admires Onyuksel’s ability to budget her time and focus on the things that are most important to her.

“She believes in life outside research and encourages her students to grow, both personally and professionally,” Kirchhoff said.

“She does it all,” Tonetti agreed.

“I’m lucky to be here, working with her.”

Related story
Inventor of the Year gets results (4/02/03)

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