For Santa Ono, starting his new job as president of UBC will be a heartfelt homecoming, and not just because he’s an ardent sports fan and certain to attend the Thunderbirds traditional Homecoming football game. It’s because Ono was born in St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver in 1962, when his father was a professor at UBC. In many ways, his life has come full circle.
His parents left post-war Japan when his father, an accomplished mathematician, was lured to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies by director Robert Oppenheimer on the recommendation of the famed mathematician André Weil.
His family then moved to Vancouver when his father accepted a faculty position in UBC’s Math Department. They named their son after Santaro, a Japanese folk story character.
Ono did have a memorable experience at McGill University, where he not only met his Chinese-Canadian wife, Wendy Yip, he also earned his PhD in Experimental Medicine.
“One of the most compelling reasons I was drawn to UBC was the depth and breadth of its academic research, and I am deeply committed to advancing that research by working collaboratively with some of the world’s leading scholars,” Ono says.
As a professor of Medicine and Biology, Ono has worked at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London, and Emory universities. Last year he was inducted by Johns Hopkins into its Society of Scholars, which honours former faculty who have gained distinction in their fields.
Ono’s research encompasses the immune system, eye inflammation and age-related macular degeneration – a leading cause of blindness. He and his research team are working to develop a blood test that could identify biomarkers in people who are progressing towards the disease.
“Early detection and treatment could reduce vision loss and allow more people to enjoy their retirement years and maintain their independence. It’s intellectually rewarding research that at the same time has the potential to transform people’s lives,” Ono says.
As a university administrator, Ono is also known for his vision beyond the laboratory. He was the first Asian-American president of the University of Cincinnati when he was appointed in 2012. Previously, he served as the University Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs. Prior to his recruitment to the University of Cincinnati, Ono was Senior Vice Provost and Deputy to the Provost at Emory University.
Ono is deeply committed to diversity and his achievements were recently recognized by the American Council on Education with an award that honours individuals who have demonstrated leadership and commitment on a national level to the advancement of racial and ethnic minorities in higher education.
“One of the primary reasons I was keen to return to Canada and to lead UBC is to enjoy the diversity of the population, in every sense of the word,” Ono says. “UBC‘s faculty and students are globally connected, and at the same time, the university is acknowledging its past and forging new relationships with First Nations. I can’t wait to be part of that.”
Inside Higher Education named him America’s most notable university president in 2015. The 72,000 people who follow Ono on Twitter and his 13,000 followers on Instagram know why he deserves that accolade. He’s adept at using social media to respond quickly and directly to people’s concerns and to make personal, authentic connections – in particular, with students. Whether sending congratulatory tweets to grads, cheering on the home team, or responding to someone’s concerns about financial aid, it’s all about engagement.
“What I’m really hoping to do is demystify the role of the president and make post-secondary education more accessible and fun,” Ono says. “I want everyone to feel comfortable talking to me and social media enables me to lower barriers.”
Ono recently used social media to spread awareness about mental illness and to share his own struggles as a high-achieving student who battled and beat depression. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Ono says. “Suicide is a real risk for university-age youth and we need them to know they are not alone.”
An avid music lover, whose tastes range from Rhianna to Rachmaninoff, Ono studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and remarkably still finds time to sing and play his cello – even taking to the concert stage to perform on occasion. His family also helps him stay grounded. Ono is an active father to his two daughters, Juliana, 18, and Sarah, 11, who are also musically talented.
UBC is certain to enjoy the lively engagement of his wife Wendy, who trained as an immunologist at McGill and as a lawyer at Boston University. She practiced law for a decade, completed a legal fellowship at what is now the Asian American Justice Center, and taught patent law at the London School of Economics. She has volunteered with assorted schools and churches wherever she and her family have lived.