John Hepburn

One-on-One with
John Hepburn

One-on-One is an ongoing series aimed at getting ‘behind the scenes’ with senior leadership at UBC.

John Hepburn is UBC's Vice President, Research & International. John first joined UBC in 2001 as a Professor of Chemistry and Physics & Astronomy, and Head of Chemistry. He became Dean of Science in 2003, and Vice President, Research in 2005. The international portfolio was added to John’s list of responsibilities in August 2009. He has been awarded the Rutherford Medal and the Noranda Prize and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Physical Society, and the Canadian Institute for Chemistry. In addition to his work at UBC, John currently serves as a Board member for numerous organizations.


If you weren’t in the field you are now, what role might have interested you?

JH: My field of scholarship is something called chemical physics, at the interface of Chemistry and Physics. Perhaps I would have chosen something with better travel possibilities, like biodiversity or geology.


What do you think of when you hear the word holiday?

JH: Depends on my mood, but principally island getaways (BC, not tropical), hiking, and (strangely enough) travel overseas.


In what instance would you say, I won't?

JH: Anything that limited, or appeared to limit, academic freedom is a definite no-no.


What quality do you most admire in a leader?

JH: A sense of humour.


What is the song you sang out loud as a teenager?

JH: I tried not to, but we did like to imitate Joe Cocker’s air guitar work, and of course, the chant and anti-war song at Woodstock by Country Joe and the Fish.


Who is your favourite historical figure?

JH: Thomas Jefferson: A polymath scholar, author of the Declaration of Independence, believer in higher education to create a better citizenry, founder of the first (I think) public, secular university. Oh, and politician.


What inspires you about living on the West coast?

JH: The diversity of the population of Vancouver.


What makes you laugh?

JH: The Goon Show, good political satire (so easy these days), Israeli essayist Etgar Keret.


One thing on your desk you brought from home?

JH: Family pictures, especially of my brand new grandson.


What is the best advice you were ever given?

JH: From a senior professor at Hebrew University, when I was a young, untenured Assistant Professor: It is better to ask an interesting question than to answer a boring one.


What do you think is the most important invention?

JH: In Vancouver: polar fleece and gore-tex.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

JH: Of course, I’m supposed to say Vancouver, which I do love, but the real answer depends on finances: if I had a lot more money, London.


Who are your favourite writers?

JH: Generally the ones I’m reading at the moment, as I usually have three books on the go. So, some recent favourites: Joseph Boyden, any of his books, but especially The Orenda; Haruki Murakami, 1Q84, Umberto Eco, Prague Cemetery, and Kazuo Ishiguro, any of his but especially The Artist of the Floating World. Finally, a great history of Israel recently published: My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.


What do you value in your colleagues?

JH: Honesty and collegiality, ability to see beyond their own interests to the broader interests of UBC.


What advice would you give a young student just starting out?

JH: Study what you love, not what you think will be useful. Of course, when you study what you love, it will always be useful.


What is your greatest extravagance?

JH: A meal in a great restaurant with a good bottle of wine (a great bottle would be better, but see the answer to #12)


What would you like to be remembered for?

JH: My children.


What is your motto?

JH: Always try to understand problems, don’t argue about proposed solutions.


What is the one question that you wished we asked but didn't?

JH: How long and wonderful was your hair in 1971? (The answer: Really wonderful and down to my shoulders, starting from the very top of my head.)


For you what makes UBC different?

JH: The sense of optimism that we can become an even greater university.

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