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the ladder

Santa Ono after being appointed as the new president of UBC in Vancouver June 13, 2016.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Santa Ono, 54, a biomedical researcher born in Vancouver, is president of the University of British Columbia. Previously he served as president of the University of Cincinnati, among other academic roles.

My father was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia. In many respects, this is a cycle of life coming around and returning to my birthplace.

My two brothers and I were all named after Japanese folk-story characters. I was named after a samurai character, Santaro. My father removed the last two letters. They had no clue what they were setting me up for, for the rest of my life. It's a very interesting person to be from Halloween to Christmas.

I was primarily raised in Philadelphia and Baltimore. There was quite a bit of emphasis on academics and my father's second love, which was music. All three of us boys were encouraged to excel in school and learn a classical-music instrument. I chose the cello.

Of the three boys, I would say I was the least gifted of the three. When my father's friends would come over for dinner, they would affectionately refer to me as the black sheep of the family. My older brother was musically gifted. With my younger brother, it was immediately obvious when he was not even 10, that he was mathematically gifted. I didn't have much self-confidence growing up because I was surrounded by these genius brothers.

They were shocked when I got into the University of Chicago and graduated, even more shocked when I got into McGill University and got a PhD. They were then shocked that I was eventually recruited to be on the faculty of places like Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University.

I really believed I was going to amount to nothing. I got significantly depressed, twice. For several decades I have been symptom-free. Now I do everything I can to advocate for better support for youth and university students because I know that mental health is a major issue. I want to first, be someone who will speak about it to end the stigma and, second, as someone privileged to be in a visible leadership position, use that influence to garner more support for the university and high school students of today. I will be committed to this for the rest of my life.

The starting point [as a leader] has to be one of humility and respect. There are all kinds of people that you work with or encounter as a university president. My style is to consider myself as their servant. It doesn't mean that you don't, at times, have to make tough decisions or assert yourself, but the foundation of how I interact with people is one of hopefully mutual respect.

Part of how I reach out to the least-powerful individuals in an organization or society comes from remembering what it feels like to be undervalued. The other part comes from my faith. I'm a Christian and have been very involved in churches in the different cities that I've lived in.

As I progressed through the faculty ranks, my laboratory got larger. I had progressively more responsibility for managing more people and larger budgets. Eventually, people asked me to get involved in strategic planning, to raise funds not just for my laboratory, but for an institute. All of those things – the ability to manage people, to hire people, to deal with conflict, to develop strategic plans and to raise money – are required to be a senior leader.

When you're a president of a multibillion [dollar] organization, inevitably there will be difficult situations that occur. As the face of the university, all eyes are on you and you have to try to navigate the university through turbulent waters.

My goal is to shape this institution so it can have a profound, positive transformation on the lives of everyone that chooses to call UBC home. An outstanding educational institution is one that can take the most vulnerable students and provide them with the support and confidence they need so they can develop and transform themselves into the leaders of tomorrow.

That I was able to accomplish anything in life is due to other people believing in me.

As told to Brenda Bouw. This interview has been edited and condensed.