We are deeply saddened by the death of our colleague and friend, Bob Millikan. Bob passed away at the age of 55 years on October 7, 2012. Bob was a leader in the field of cancer epidemiology, especially the molecular epidemiology of breast cancer. He was a true scholar, teacher, and mentor and will be missed by many colleagues, former students, study staff, the breast cancer advocacy community, and others from the many diverse communities that had come to know and be inspired by him.
Robert C. Millikan earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees (1982 and 1984, respectively) in veterinary medicine from University of California, Davis (Davis, CA), and a Master of Public Health (1991) and Doctor of Philosophy (1993) in epidemiology from University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA). He was a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology at Harvard Medical School (Boston, MA) and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, MA) and completed an internship in medicine and surgery at the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA; 1985). Bob joined the faculty in the Department of Epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC) in 1993. He spent the 2005 to 2006 academic year at University College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland) as a Fulbright Scholar. In 2008, he was awarded the Hulka Distinguished Professorship.
Bob was widely known for his research on breast cancer, which extended from identification of genetic and environmental etiologic risk factors to assessment of factors that impact recurrence and survival. As Principal Investigator of the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), he greatly elucidated the etiology of specific breast cancer subtypes, particularly those that disproportionately impact African-American women. Bob's research was extremely rigorous and in-depth, but he did not stop with making important scientific discoveries. To give back to the community of women who participated in the CBCS, Bob established mechanisms for study participants to have personal contact with the investigators, and to receive information on study findings thorough annual research meetings including researchers and the community. In recent years, Bob also participated in several consortia, recognizing that it is only through collaborations and pooling of data and samples that the scientific community will be able to understand why African-American women are diagnosed with more aggressive breast cancer subtypes, are diagnosed at younger ages, and are more likely to die from the disease.
Bob's expertise in breast cancer research was also widely shared with the breast cancer advocacy community, playing a major role in educational programs. Bob was asked in 1994 by the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) to create a curriculum to teach advocates the basics of molecular biology, epidemiology, and research design. Advocates with this training would then be better prepared to engage with breast cancer scientists and survivors. This was the start of Project LEAD, a NBCC program that has graduated more than 2,000 advocates from around the world. Bob was highly regarded as a teacher, covering a wide range of topics in a highly engaging manner, always sensitive to the varying science backgrounds of the advocate students. Since his death, many advocates have paid testament to the impact Bob had on their lives and their work. Many have noted how, with his kind, quiet way, Bob not only educated them, sharing his wealth of knowledge and perspective, but also inspired them to have confidence in their participation in the advocacy and scientific communities.
Bob was also a part of the melanoma community, extending from Ireland to Italy to Denmark to Australia to Canada and throughout the United States. He was a founding member of the Genes, Environment and Melanoma (GEM), study, a large international study of melanoma risk and survival. Bob's passion for doing things correctly without need for personal recognition ranged from improving the ascertainment of melanoma in North Carolina to conducting special analyses without regard for publication on such topics as population stratification in melanoma. The GEM study meets annually and this group has met in some of Bob's favorite locations—Whistler Mountain during ski season, Copenhagen in the spring, and sunny Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the winter. Bob also greatly enjoyed his Fulbright year in Ireland studying melanoma with William Gallagher's group. He felt strongly about strengthening research ties across geographical and cultural boundaries. Bob was known for his integrity but also had a sly sense of humor that could always make you smile.
To those who knew him (this is a large cohort!), Bob will be remembered for not only his exceptional talent as a scientist, but also for being an extremely caring individual who was more interested in how you were doing than in giving a discourse on his own accomplishments. He channeled his nonwork time into many areas—coaching rowing at University of North Carolina, playing violin in a quartet, volunteering for the local Interfaith Council—all representing his world view of helping others.