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Interview with Santa Ono

Updated: Sep 9, 2020


📷 The Globe and Mail

Journalist: Romina Mahinpei



Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection. I’m Romina, your journalist for this week’s episode. We are here today with Dr. Santa Ono who is a molecular immunologist and UBC’s current President & Vice-Chancellor. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Ono.


Dr. Ono: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to be with you.


Interviewer: To start, we do have two rapid-fire questions, so that our listeners can learn about your interests. Firstly, who is one of your role models in the scientific community?


Dr. Ono: Well actually, it’s Anthony Fauci who you probably know (and) who is one television regularly. He is one of the world’s authorities in terms of infectious disease. He’s the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases or NIAD as it’s referred to at the NIH and the US, and he has been an icon for decades and he’s someone I’ve looked up to since I was a student, a graduate student at McGill University. And, as you can see, not only is he a cutting-edge scientist but his work is important for everyone around the world. But he’s (also) a person of tremendous humility, as you can see. He’s someone who’ll admit when he doesn’t have answers to questions and he’s someone who works tirelessly for the well-being of people around the world.


Interviewer: And especially with everything going on, I feel like he is a role model for a lot of people right now.


Dr. Ono: Yeah, and he has the courage to speak truth when people don’t want to hear the truth and that’s one of the key virtues of a scientist, to seek truth and to ensure that the accurate information is disseminated to people everywhere. So, he really is a role model not just for myself but for anyone who’s interested in a career in science.


Interviewer: Definitely. And secondly, what do you think has been one of the most important scientific discoveries?


Dr. Ono: Well, there are endless numbers of important scientific discoveries, but I’ll talk about one that I was able to witness with a front row seat. And I would like to give a shoutout to one of my mentors. His name is Professor Jack Strominger, and he’s one of these individuals that have made not one, not two, but three or more seminal discoveries. But I’ll talk to you about the one key discovery that he made that won him a Lasker Award, which is considered the American Noble Prize in medicine because of how difficult it is to receive that recognition. What he discovered was something which was considered a black box of the immune system. So, people for the longest time didn’t know what the molecular basis was of self/non-self discrimination. And so, when he started trying to identify these molecules, nobody knew how that worked. So, what Jack Strominger did was he was able to isolate these molecules in a pure biochemical form, and these molecules are called histocompatibility antigens. And so, when he actually purified the molecule and looked at it through X-ray diffraction, looked at a picture of what it looks like, it revealed the mechanism of action of this molecule. And then, when it became even clearer in a higher resolution X-ray diffraction picture, what they were able to discover was that there was a peptide binding to that group of this molecule he had purified. And basically, what’s in there is a piece of foreign antigen, a foreign molecule. And that’s how the immune system, scanning the surface of cells is able to see that small molecule that it’s never seen before. And so, Jack Strominger’s lab was able to essentially determine the molecular basis of the immune recognition.


Interviewer: And now, before we discuss your research and your career, could you give us a summary of your educational path and your interests as a student?


Dr. Ono: Sure. I’ll tell you that I was born to a professor of mathematics who taught at the University of British Columbia, that’s where he got his start as a mathematician, and then he moved to the University of Pennsylvania and then Johns Hopkins. So, in high school, I was in Baltimore, Maryland. So, I was born into an academic family, but I was no good at mathematics so the first thing I want to say is that everybody has different strengths and you need to find what you are passionate about and what you’re good at. And it might be very different from your father or your mother or your brother or your sister. Doesn’t matter, we’re all different and we all have our unique talents and gifts. So, that was the case with me. I fell in love with biology because when I was in high school, molecular biology was all the rage. It was what was talked about, what was written about in Time Magazine and Life Magazine, and so I wanted to be a part of this revolution. So, I became a molecular biologist. I went to the University of Chicago where one of the two Noble Prize winners that determined the structure of DNA, Jim Watson, he went to the University of Chicago. So, I wanted to go to the same university he went to, so I went there. And then I wanted to come back to Canada where I was born and I got my graduate education, my PhD, from McGill University in Montreal. After that, you do something called a postdoctoral fellowship. I did at Harvard with Jack Strominger, as I just said, and I worked on histocompatibility complex genes. And then, I went to my first job as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins. I went back home to be on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, and I was recruited then to Harvard University and then I eventually became interested in helping to run universities. So, I became something called a Vice Provost, the senior Vice-Provost, that’s responsible for the academics of an institution at Emory University. Then, I became a Provost and President at the University of Cincinnati and finally, four and a half years ago, ended back at UBC where I was born (and) where my dad taught as President.


Interviewer: And obviously, you’ve had such a fascinating and successful journey, but what would you say were some of the challenges you faced along the way?


Dr. Ono: There’ve been an enormous number of challenges. I’ll talk about personal challenges and professional challenges. Some people may know that I’ve had some mental health challenges when I was a kid, when I was 14, and also when I was a young adult. I say that with no shame. I say that because it’s a very common thing for people to have some mental health struggles some time during their life. In fact, as much as one out of four individuals in the university will have challenges of one type and another. I was fortunate to get the help of psychologists that were able to help me out and I’ve been perfectly fine for several decades. But during my adolescence and my young adulthood, those were some of the personal challenges that I had. So, I say that because I don’t want people to feel that it’s anything that they should be ashamed of. There’s no stigma. It’s a very common thing. The most important thing is to seek help and the support of your family, of your professors, and all that. Those were personal challenges. Professional challenges also happened. Science is difficult. Scientific experiments don’t always work, and that’s tough because so much of one’s self-esteem is wrapped up on whether or not your experiments are working or not. And there have been periods of time where they didn’t work for a long time, and so my message to everyone who is in science is not to take it personally, that science can be difficult, but to have faith in yourself and to ensure that you are looking after your wellness as you’re working through those difficult periods.


Interviewer: A 100%. And I feel like as students we do tend to get busy with life and obviously there are a lot of challenges in life that you can encounter. So really, just finding that balance and taking care of yourself is very important and it’s an important message to send out to our listeners as well, so thank you for doing that. And also, I know you’ve been very involved with science and research, but I was wondering why you think it is important for the general public to engage with science?


Dr. Ono: Well, as you know from COVID and from AIDS and SARS and Ebola, science is critically important because our health depends upon it and that’s just one aspect of science. These diseases can impact all of us. They can actually paralyze societies and economies as you can see. And all kinds of science are required to be able to cure those diseases. There is not only a requirement for biochemistry and immunology, but you need to have knowledge about chemistry, about delivery methods. You need to have an understanding about how to scale things up so that you can treat billions of people around the world. So, all aspects of science go into conquering something like COVID-19. That’s one example, but there are all kinds of science that has nothing to do with health but has to do with tackling the other problems that we face, such as climate change. So, whether you are an environmental scientist or whether you are an atmospheric scientist or whether you are a chemist or a physicist or a mathematician, all those disciplines are going to be required for us to solve these very grand challenges that we can’t yet solve.


Interviewer: Exactly and as you said, there are so many different applications of science in daily life, so really, it’s only a benefit to the public to engage with science and learn about it.


Dr. Ono: It’s also fun! Any problem is a puzzle. What’s amazing is whether you are thinking about the human body or you’re thinking about climate change, these are questions that are not easy to solve. And when you live a life of science, you get up every day and you tickle around and one day when you least expect it, you can look inside at something that nobody has ever seen before. And there is no more special feeling than that. It’s like the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, going into outer space in Apollo 11 and looking back at the blue dot, planet Earth. Absolutely beautiful. To be able to be someone like that, to see something, whether it’s large like planet Earth or whether it’s something small like how a transcription factor regulates genes that are critical for the immune system working, being the first to be able to see something and understand how something works is pretty cool. And there are very few experiences that I’ve had that are as cool as the privilege of discovering something for the first time.


Interviewer: A 100%. It’s a very unique experience and hopefully more people decide to get involved with it as well. And just because we are a bit short on time, I do have one final question for you. If you had to give one advice to undergraduate students, what would it be?


Dr. Ono: My advice would be not to get too focussed too soon. A lot of students, and I’ve interacted with thousands of students, a lot of them come into university knowing what they want to do or what they want to study or who they want to be. And I can tell you the one thing that I know for sure, having interacted with thousands of students over the past decades, is that almost always people change what it is that they want to study or what they want to be from day one when they step into a university and when they leave. That’s part of what university is all about. Sometimes it happens in the first semester. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two years. Sometimes people change what they do after they graduate from university, and it’s okay because it’s like growing up. You discover yourself. And so, I would say that the biggest tragedy, if you will, is when people get into this mindset that they have to be something that they think they want to be, or their parents want them to be something. Ultimately, you’re not happy unless you have discovered what you really want to do. And so, my advice would be to keep an open mind and to explore and to allow yourself to discover what it is that you’re truly passionate about.


Interviewer: A great message! And that does bring us to the end of this interview. Dr. Ono, thank you once again for joining us today and for highlighting the importance and beauty of science.And for everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection’s podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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