Excellence and achievement are not the same thing

Victor Ling knows a thing or two about excellence. As vice-president of research at the British Columbia Cancer Agency and a professor of pathology at the University of British Columbia, Ling is known internationally for his groundbreaking work on multi-drug resistance that cancer cells develop to chemotherapy agents. He is also an advocate for students and young scientists and a role model for those entering the field. For his leadership in the Canadian scientific community, Ling was recognized with a York honorary doctor of laws degree June 14 at the graduation ceremony for students in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the School of Kinesiology & Health Science.

Left:  Victor Ling

In his convocation address, Ling urged graduates not to confuse the acquisition of achievements with excellence. “In today’s highly competitive world, we are caught up by the pursuit of achievements rather than excellence. Achievement is not the goal of excellence, it is simply a by-product,” said Ling. “Striving for achievements is a very poor counterfeit of striving for excellence.

“I know that I am not excellent if I break a world record and use drugs to do it. As a cancer scientist, I know that I am not excellent if I find a cure for cancer and then fail to share it with others,” he said.

Learning the true meaning of excellence came to Ling through the simple message delivered by his mentor, Frederick Sanger, a British molecular biologist. Sanger won the 1958 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on the structure of proteins. The work that won Sanger his second Nobel Prize in 1980 also led to his development of the Sanger Sequencing Method, the major DNA decoding technique used in the International Human Genome Project, which has major health and anti-aging implications.

“In the scientific world, excellence is often marked by the awarding of the Nobel Prize. This prize is not given for a flash in the pan, but for an original discovery that has a major and lasting impact,” said Ling. “The Nobel committee actually has a very difficult job because often discoveries are so fundamental that the impact is not known for years. To achieve excellence at this level, one needs vision and long-term perspective. In this respect, I was very fortunate to work with Dr. Frederick Sanger, who won two Nobel prizes for his work.

“I was a postdoctoral fellow in Sanger’s lab in Cambridge in the 1970s. Soon after arriving in his lab, I was completely frustrated with the lack of progress of our research. I complained to Fred one day that it would probably take more than 50 years before we could learn how to sequence DNA,” said Ling. “He said, ‘You think so? Well, someone has to start!'”

That simple remark, said Ling, illustrated to him why Sanger was a leader in scientific research. “I learned that Dr. Sanger had long-term vision and because of that he is able to identify problems to work on that are fundamental and have a lasting importance.” This attribute and Sanger’s perseverance, Ling said, has helped him with his own research.

“I know that cancer has touched the lives of everyone. One day someone said to me that it must be discouraging because problems of cancer are so great and the progress is so slow,” said Ling. 

Instead, he said that he had experienced the opposite and while the progress is slow, he has found the courage to continue. Ling said he was able to learn much more about what is important in life from people who are facing their own death from cancer. “They do not talk about their achievements, instead they talk about the love of their families, about their relationships, about God, life and death, and about things that really matter.

“How we fight cancer is a metaphor about how we deal with seemingly unsolvable problems that we all encounter. We need to face problems squarely, with determination, knowledge, a clear long-term vision, with passion and with excellence,” said Ling. “Graduating class of 2006, you are the leaders of our society, the future is yours to create. In this long-term process, I encourage you to create a future with excellence.”