In 2020, Dr. Robert Winn ’87 became the first Black physician to lead a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, a group of 71 premier cancer centers across the United States. Winn, a pulmonary and critical care specialist and expert in community-based health care, is the director at the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
But back in 1983, when he arrived at Notre Dame, being a doctor wasn’t even on his radar. He was an engineering major.
“I didn’t even think it was possible for me to become a physician. The neighborhood I grew up in, there were no Black doctors,” Winn said of his childhood in Buffalo, New York. “I just thought that was for other people.”
But two of his advisors at Notre Dame convinced him otherwise, sensing that engineering was not the right fit for his personality and strengths. When Winn retells the story, he jokes that the pair made the decision for him, going as far as to sign him up for the psychology and pre-professional courses that became his double major.
“Fr. Robert Austgene and Fr. Joseph Walter double-teamed me,” Winn laughs. “In looking back, I think that is one of the most special things about Notre Dame. It was a powerhouse of an academic institution, but yet it was small enough where they can intervene, in this case, on a young man’s behalf. To see me enough to say, ‘No, I know that you signed up for engineering, but [science and medicine] is what you should be doing.’ They obviously couldn’t have done it without my saying OK, but I must readily admit if it wasn’t for Fr. Austgene and Fr. Walter, I would never have been on this path to becoming a physician, let alone a physician-scientist, and let alone a cancer center director, without the two of them seeing something in me that I clearly didn’t see in myself.”
Winn says he found his love of science at Notre Dame, and then a love of research in medical school at Michigan, and he has combined the two ever since. After graduating from medical school, Winn continued his training at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago and then at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, one of the top places in the country for pulmonary and critical care.
After 16 years practicing in Colorado, Winn spent seven years at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Science System in Chicago, where he rose to serve as director of the cancer center and as associate vice chancellor of health affairs for community-based practice. In early 2020, he moved to Virginia to lead the cancer center at VCU and was immediately confronted with managing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond the loss of life from the virus, Winn also saw an epidemic of misinformation and disinformation. Their patients were dying at home from heart attacks, or delaying check-up appointments and cancer screenings, all because they were afraid to come to the hospital and risk exposure to COVID-19.
For Winn, community involvement is as essential to patient care as any exam or treatment he might administer in the hospital. And since his patients weren’t coming to the hospital, he found a way to reach them by engaging with a trusted local source: churches and faith congregations in the Richmond area. He started an ongoing weekly conference call, dubbed Facts and Faith Friday, with clergy members who go on to share reliable information and advice with their church communities.
“I realized we could make a much bigger impact by combining and partnering with faith-based organizations to get true, validated, clear, and trusted data out there,” Winn says.
They hold each call over a phone line to ensure equal opportunity access for communities without reliable internet service, and each conversation features a medical expert. On Jan. 8, 2021, over 10,000 people called in to Facts and Faith Friday to hear from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and chief medical advisor to the Biden-Harris administration.
While this type of event might seem beyond the scope of Winn’s job as a cancer center director, it’s all part of the work, in his mind. He wants to build trust within the community he serves, particularly in the Black community around VCU.
“The cool part about [Facts and Faith Friday] is that it’s not what a cancer center director does, but I’ve learned from Notre Dame that the reality is that I have a bigger mission than just the science and curing and healing the body,” Winn says. “To do the good we want to do in our laboratories and get that from the laboratories into the clinics and get that into the community, there is this other mission — connectedness to community — and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
And while Winn is breaking barriers in his own career, he also wants to make sure his firsts pave the way for others. He has been an advocate for fellow Black physicians to join him at the helm of National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers. Since Winn’s appointment in late 2019, the University of Chicago hired Adekunle Odunsi, a Nigerian American, to lead its NCI cancer center. Winn hopes a woman of color will be next in line. He also still works with doctors in training, and emphasizes his philosophy of community connection with them.
“Humility and grace are the two most important things you can have to be a great physician,” says Winn. “Grace for others in that people can make a mistake, and humility in that the answers are not always going to come from ‘the experts.’ In fact, some of the best answers aren’t coming from your doctors — they are coming from people in the community.