illustrated portrait of Santa Ono, AB'84

(Illustration by Matthew Cook)

Santa Ono, AB’84

Questions for the immunologist and 15th president of the University of Michigan.

What would you want to be doing if not your current profession?

I really love the power of movies. Bringing together screenwriting, cinematography, and music to tell stories and to evoke both emotions and thought would have been an attractive profession.

What do you love that everyone else hates?

There are quite a few Coldplay haters in the world. I love their music and that Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman, and Will Champion met at University College London. I was also at UCL when their debut album Parachutes was all the rage.

What was the last book you finished?

I've just read The View from the Helm by James Duderstadt, the 11th president of the University of Michigan. It was great preparation for the start of my own term as Michigan's president.

What was the last book you recommended to a friend?

I often recommend Hanna Holborn Gray's An Academic Life: A Memoir. It tells the story of life in academia and the challenges of leading a major university. Together with Duderstadt's book, her memoir should be required reading for anyone interested in academic administration.

What was the last book you put down before you finished it?

I rushed to buy Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom because it involves interactions between a student and a dying college professor. I had expected pearls of wisdom about the meaning of life, but it was devoid of any such content. I put the book down halfway through.

Tell us the best piece of advice you've received—or the worst.

The best piece of advice I ever received was from UChicago biochemistry professor Herbert C. Friedmann, PhD'58. He said, "Santa, the most important advice I have for you is to pursue your dreams and to be courageous. Don't give a damn if people think you are crazy. Everyone working at the cutting edge is considered to be crazy by those doing incremental research."

What surprising job have you had in the past?

One of my favorite jobs was serving as chief innovation officer for the province of British Columbia. This gave me a platform to bring together fundamental researchers and large corporations from many sectors to leverage cutting-edge digital technologies (artificial intelligence, quantum computing, augmented and virtual reality, and machine learning) to position the province to be globally competitive. Through this work, the province received considerable funding from the federal government to develop a digital technologies supercluster that is having a profound impact on the BC economy.

What do you hate that everyone else loves?

People love to get together and play card games such as poker, Uno, or gin rummy. I'd rather watch Emmerdale or Coronation Street.

What UChicago course book left the biggest impression on you?

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the "Philosophical Investigations" left an indelible impression on me because I struggled to understand almost every paragraph. Things made much more sense after reading Philosophical Investigations. I often wonder whether it would've made more sense reading the latter book first.

What book changed your life?

As a University of Chicago first-year student, I was fascinated with the question of the origin of life. I went to the chemistry library in my first quarter to read Stanley Miller's (PhD'54) dissertation. I was very impressed with the originality of the experimental design, and the remarkable result that amino acids were detected at the end of the famous experiment. It inspires me to this very day.

What person, alive or dead, would you want to write your life story?

That's an easy one: Walter Isaacson. His biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein were fantastic.

What's your least useful talent?

If only I had a talent. Being born into a family of remarkably talented people, I'm hopelessly garden variety.

What's your most vivid UChicago memory?

I would not be who I am today were it not for the influences of Hanna Gray; Elliott Kieff, PhD'71; Jonathan Fanton; Herbert Friedmann; and my dorm mates at Burton Judson Courts. But as I said at my Michigan inauguration, my most vivid memory is Dodd-Mead beating Chamberlin House in intramural football (and I didn't even play in the game).