In December 2019, Robert A. Winn, MD, became the second Black physician to lead a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center when he took the helm of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center. Dr. Winn’s basic science research, which has been supported by multiple National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Veterans Affairs Merit awards, focuses on the mechanisms that drive the development and progression of cancer and on the role of stopping cell division in lung cancer.
Among his many goals, Dr. Winn has a vision to establish a 21st-century model of equity for cancer research and treatment, where community participation with the cancer center drives the initiative that address the cancer burden and disparities of the populations the center serves. “This will take a concerted effort with a local focus but a global impact,” said Dr. Winn.
Director, VCU Massey Cancer Center, Richmond, Virginia
MD, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor
ON WHAT MAKES VCU MASSEY CANCER CENTER SO SPECIAL
“When I was interviewing with Massey, three things set the cancer center apart from others. One is the center’s dedication to the community. It’s palatable. It felt real and authentic. Also, it has an outstanding faculty and a great administration. When you put all that together with a set of defined goals, you can make change at a ground level in the surrounding communities.”
Reared With Love and Purpose
Dr. Winn grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, and was raised by a single, teenage mom in what he described as an “at-risk” environment. He credits his success, in part, to time spent in a Head Start program and to the encouragement of his mother and grandmother. “My mom couldn’t see where I would end up, but she knew I needed a good education. And my [now] 93-year-old grandma also knew my ticket out was education,” said Dr. Winn.
After high school, Dr. Winn became the first in his family to attend college when he entered the University of Notre Dame to pursue a degree in psychology. His reasoning was to have a career in which he could make a difference in the world, a goal that wasn’t altogether clear at the time. However, according to Dr. Winn, a mentor interceded.
“By chance I met Rev. Walters who ran the university’s premed program. He was truly a terrific person, with a keen wit and a great sense of humor. He saw potential in me and convinced me I should switch courses and pursue a career in medicine, which would give me the best opportunity to give back to the community, something I truly aspired to,” said Dr. Winn. “Rev. Walters truly exemplified the role of the teacher-mentor, which is an invaluable component in the educational system. And my personal path to success is evidence of how proper support and guidance can help young people from at-risk environments overcome their challenges and lead valuable and productive lives.”
Along with mentorship, Dr. Winn credits three federal programs as being life-changing. “Head Start was central to any success I’ve had. It gave me the right stuff to make it. Of 100 kids, maybe 2 will go to college. It’s important for me to reassure parents that we don’t know which of those kids might be the one who discovers the cure for cancer,” he related.
Dr. Winn also served as a candy striper at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, during high school and college. And he participated in the Travelers Summer Research Fellowship Program at Weill Cornell Medicine Medical College in the summer while studying at Notre Dame. “I am a big proponent of pipeline programs,” he added.
Determined to Make a Difference
After attaining his undergraduate degree, Dr. Winn entered the University of Michigan Medical School determined to become not only a doctor, but an agent of change for underserved communities. Dr. Winn described his experience at the University of Michigan as a robust and intellectually challenging time, marked by numerous high points. Most notable of these high points was a lecture hall class with Francis Collins, MD, PhD, future Head of the NIH and a leader on the Human Genome Project.
“At that time, Dr. Collins was Professor of Genetics, and he had a profound influence on my decision to pursue scientific research. Frankly, I’d never entertained the idea of becoming a researcher, but Dr. Collins generated such enthusiasm for science that it literally blew me away. At one point during his classes, I fell in love with the scientific approach, and the decision was made. It was as if science made the decision for me, that’s the only way to frame it. Moreover, that experience with Dr. Collins was stamped into me, and I carried his enthusiastic approach into my career, with my students and mentees. It’s one more valuable example of how one person can make a difference in someone’s life and career path,” said Dr. Winn.
Asked about any other major figures in his early career, Dr. Winn noted Ralph Gibson, PhD, who was the first Black member of the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletes and the first Black full Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School. Under the leadership of Dr. Gibson, the first pediatric psychology section in a department of pediatrics was established. In 1965, he was appointed Head of the Pediatric Psychology Unit at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“Dr. Gibson was a commanding figure; in fact, there was a special ‘Gibson look’ that certainly got your attention and let you know that beyond everything else, medicine was serious business, and we needed to give our all to it,” Dr. Winn shared. “He embodied the overall atmosphere of pride that permeated the University of Michigan Medical School. And early on, I understood at a deep level that academia was the vehicle for me to become a physician-scientist; it offered the best opportunity to make change on a wide stage. It filled me with excitement because I knew I’d made the right decision.”
A Divergent Road to Oncology
Following medical school, the budding physician-scientist did an internship and residency program in internal medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, after which he was accepted to a pulmonary and critical care medicine fellowship at the University of Colorado Health Sciences, Denver. Although Dr. Winn had entered pulmonary medicine, his road to cancer research and treatment began with an interest in lung cancer and encouragement from a famous oncologist.
“I’d become interested in lung cancer, and back then, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, all we really had were cisplatin-based therapies. As we know, the outcomes at that time for our patients with lung cancer were dismal,” said Dr. Winn. “Folks diagnosed with lung cancer from 1959 to 1989 were not given options to extend their lives. People were not being saved, just treated. In the 2000s, with the rise of molecular therapy, we started making inroads and saving the lives of patients with cancer.”
During his fellowship, his lung cancer credentials were solidified by a future ASCO President. “I was really digging deep into lung cancer, which fascinated me on multiple levels, from its lethality and the complexity of its genetic mutations and potential treatment pathways. I had the good fortune of meeting the eminent lung cancer specialist Dr. Paul Bunn. He kindly said because of my interest and knowledge, even though I was a pulmonologist, I was now an honorary oncologist. Little did I know that in the near future, the bulk of my research would focus on bench and translational studies geared toward the development of new cancer agents. In short, my frustration by the lack of effective drugs and the poor outcomes of our patients with lung cancer was a main driver in my pursuit of a career in oncology,” said Dr. Winn.
A Vision Honed From Real-World Experiences
In 2019, when Dr. Winn became Director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center he had two goals: accelerate the speed and value of new cancer treatments and initiate community programs to help reduce disparities of care among underserved populations. “When I speak about disparities, I like to remind people of the harshness of the conditions that were clearly laid out by W.E.B. Du Bois in his historic Philadelphia Papers, The Philadelphia Negro, written in 1899. If we flash forward to 2019 and 2020, the COVID pandemic demonstrated glaring inequities in our health-care system, and the George Floyd killing exposed yet again unequal treatment of persons of color in law enforcement. Tragic as those events were, we saw a collective pause of awareness in the nation that energized people into action. But it’s vital to keep that same energy alive, if we truly want to make systemic change,” said Dr. Winn.
He explained that the leadership at the Massey Cancer Center rallied in the face of medical uncertainty and a tumultuous political climate, launching initiatives such as Facts & Faith Friday. This initiative was a commitment to meet with faith-based leaders throughout the State of Virginia.
“By creating good-faith bonds with people and leaders in challenged communities, using well-crafted practices and easy-to-grasp language, we’ve been able to build trust in places where it wasn’t always there,” Dr. Winn explained. “We took stock in the fact that absorbing ourselves in big data ran the risk of losing touch with the people we needed to serve. We used small-area analyses, similar to how political action committees work, breaking the large areas down into Zip codes and voting districts. By doing that, we were able to target the most at-need areas for our resources.”
The Epicenter of Systemic Change
Dr. Winn stressed that disparities of cancer care and inequities in the system at large are massive problems, which will take generations to solve. But, according to Dr. Winn, academic institutions such as Massey can be the epicenter of systemic change.
“It’s important for a cancer center to be big in our thinking but all-inclusive and collaborative in how we interact with people. When I was interviewing with Massey, three things set the cancer center apart from others. One is the center’s dedication to the community. It’s palatable. It felt real and authentic. Also, it has an outstanding faculty and a great administration. When you put all that together with a set of defined goals, you can make change at a ground level in the surrounding communities,” said Dr. Winn. “I understand the size of the challenges ahead, but I remain confident we will succeed. It also creates a more diverse work field in the oncology community, which is another initiative I take seriously, on a personal level. The talent in underrepresented communities is out there; all we need to do is make the effort to recruit them.”
What does a super-busy cancer center director do to decompress? “I have a home gym replete with weights and all the other things I need for a good workout. Exercise and reading are the chief ways I get away from work. Then there is spending time with my kids, which is the ultimate way to decompress. They have a way of putting things into perspective.”