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Full obituary

Robert Millikan, cancer researcher, gentle colleague, dies Oct. 7

A brilliant and beloved scientist has left us too early.

Dr. Robert Millikan, Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor of Cancer Epidemiology, died Sunday, October 7. He was 55.

A member of the epidemiology faculty at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center since 1993, Dr. Millikan’s research in cancer epidemiology brought hope for better understanding and treatment of breast cancer, particularly for young African-American women who disproportionately die from the disease.

“Dr. Millikan had a major impact on the field of cancer and molecular epidemiology,” said Andy Olshan, PhD, professor and chair of the epidemiology department and UNC Lineberger’s associate director of population sciences. “His innovations led the field and created opportunities for countless epidemiology and other public health students. The department has lost not only a great scientist and teacher but a wonderful friend and colleague.”

“Dr. Millikan and his colleagues conducted three waves of this country’s groundbreaking longitudinal study of breast cancer in African-American and Caucasian women,” said Shelley Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger. “Through the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), he sought to understand the complex reasons for poor breast cancer outcomes in African- American women.  His seminal findings, published in 100 papers, have changed the face of breast cancer disparities research. The CBCS Phase III, which Dr. Millikan set in motion, will continue to add to our knowledge over the next decade, but the field has lost a brilliant and passionate advocate for women with breast cancer.”

In 2011, Dr. Millikan was awarded a $19.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, a member institute of the National Institutes of Health, for an ambitious study of breast cancer in young African-American women. He was also a lead investigator on the UNC Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer, which was just renewed by NCI for $10 million dollars over the next five years.

Data from UNC Lineberger’s Carolina Breast Cancer Study, which Dr. Millikan directed for more than fifteen years, demonstrated that black women under the age of 45 are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive types of breast cancer than are women of European ancestry. The Phase III NCI program grant, which he led, will result in a better understanding of this significant health disparity by collecting information about more than 5,000 women to explore biological, environmental and epidemiologic reasons for the difference in cancer incidence.

“Dr. Millikan had remarkable breadth in his approach to disease and the health of the public,” said Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the public health school. “His encyclopedic knowledge of epidemiology, breast cancer and melanoma were fully matched by his compassion for and understanding of all aspects of health disparities. Bob had great curiosity about people and a gift for listening and going where he saw unmet need, whether it was disentangling the biology and epidemiology of disparities, teaching breast cancer advocates about epidemiology or coaching the UNC men’s crew team. The nation has lost a brilliant, humane public health leader.”

Dr. Millikan’s UNC Breast Cancer SPORE research combined traditional epidemiological measures of disease predisposition with molecular markers aimed at characterizing genetic susceptibility to cancers. He was also part of an international collaboration, called the Genes, Environment and Melanoma Study, to examine causes of malignant melanoma. That work has added to the understanding of molecular causation of the disease, which is increasing in incidence. He served for more than 15 years as a faculty member for the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD, teaching breast cancer advocates about the science of breast cancer epidemiology and genomics.

Dr. Millikan earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees (1982, 1984) in veterinary medicine from University of California at Davis and a Master of Public Health (1991) and Doctor of Philosophy (1993) in epidemiology from University of California at Los Angeles. He was a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and completed internship in medicine and surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Millikan was director of the integrative health sciences facility core at the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility. He held an adjunct professorship in the College of Veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University.

He spent the 2005-2006 academic year at University College Dublin (Ireland) as a Fulbright Scholar. In 2008, the public health school awarded him the Hulka Distinguished Professorship.