Dr. Santa J. Ono gave a lecture on Faith in the Academy at the Ismaili Centre Toronto on August 6. The President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia spoke to the audience about how his faith has been intertwined with his scientific research over the years.

“So much that exists in this world cannot be explained or proven,” said Ono, explaining the realization he had many years ago that was pivotal to the growth of his faith. 

According to Ono, Albert Einstein and other scientists have shared this same realization. 

Ono shared a quote from Einstein: “‘Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must seem humble.’”

Ono’s research is focused on the immune system, eye inflammation, and age related macular degeneration. He has worked at various universities in the United States, including the University of Cincinnati, Emory University, University College London, Johns Hopkins and Harvard before assuming the role of President and Vice-Chancellor of UBC.

During a moderated discussion after Ono’s speech, Dr. Deborah MacLatchy, President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University, asked him to elaborate on his early years of university and how faith came to him over time. 

Ono equated his life prior to faith to how “a ship will toss over a rough sea.” He explained that faith provided him with “an anchor.”

Once he began his university training at age 17, Ono began to feel something missing in his life. He encountered new friends who told him about their religion, and when he entered their place of worship - their Church - he felt moved.

Ono discussed how once he embraced religion, he had to make conscious decisions about how vocal to be about his faith. He recalled one colleague cautioning him to be careful, telling him others would look at a faculty member who openly observes faith as lacking a rigorous scientific mind.

The UBC President ultimately came to the conclusion that he would be forthright and use his faith to create dialogue.

Through studying science for several decades, Ono said he has become more humble. 

“Many things we believe to be true at a given time - 5, 10, 15 years later turn out not to be true,” he said, explaining that faith has made him a better scientist because it has made him more aware of the limitations of being human. Now, after decades of struggling with the notion of science and faith, Ono does not feel any tension between the two.

At UBC, Ono aspires to create an intentionally diverse environment that reflects the communities which it serves. He talked about how UBC is one of the most international universities in the world, and how its diversity creates an enriched environment for teaching, research, and learning as well as bringing together people from different faiths.

Ono expressed that a diverse environment brings differing views and perspectives, which in some cases causes uncomfortable situations. There is a blurred line between freedom of speech and hate speech, he said, but in his experience, bringing together differing opinions rather than censoring them is usually the right approach.

He also discussed his views on leadership.

“A leader has to start from a position of humility and respect others, everyone,” Ono said, explaining the concept of servant leadership. He explained a leader must be careful about the risks of intellectual arrogance: if one is not open to the idea of being wrong or to different perspectives, it can limit experiments and research.

Nida Hashimi, a university student entering her fourth year, asked about the need to build humility into students before they enter the workplace. Ono answered that as society has become so fast-paced and people have become more focused on the end result, the need for inter-generational education and mentorship has increased.

Ono said he sees this humility and intergenerational mentorship in the Ismaili community and he hopes to see more of it everywhere.


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