Robert A. Winn: 2022 ASTRO Honorary Member

By Jennifer Jang, ASTRO Communications

Robert A. Winn, MD

ASTRO has named Robert A. Winn, MD, Director and Lipman Chair of Oncology at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center, as the 2022 ASTRO Honorary Member, for his outstanding contributions to community-centered clinical care, scientific research and improving diversity, equity and inclusion in oncology. Based out of Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Winn also serves as the Senior Associate Dean for Cancer Innovation and professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at VCU School of Medicine. A gifted leader and administrator, Dr. Winn oversees the activities of Massey’s 250-plus research members — researchers and physicians from 39 departments in nine colleges and schools at VCU, including the Department of Radiation Oncology. In this role, he is leading the nation in establishing a 21st-century model for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the oncology workforce, optimizing cancer health care outcomes for all and spearheading interdisciplinary approaches to cancer disparities research.

Just the fourth director of Massey since its 1975 National Cancer Institute designation, Dr. Winn leads by example. He is nationally recognized for his community engagement efforts in promoting new approaches to building trust among populations previously disenfranchised from health care or excluded or abused in research. His priorities and perspective are evident in his wide-reaching engagements. For example, when considering this year’s Annual Meeting theme, AI and EI: Caring for the Patient in a Wireless World, he said, "I hear so much talk about AI reshaping the way we approach health care, but it is essential that emotional intelligence is a part of it…We must connect with the community and gain its trust. You only get the benefits of high-tech if you also include what I like to call high-touch. You cannot do one without the other if equity and inclusion are the ultimate goals."

Dr. Winn realized early on that deeply rooted systemic issues contributed significantly to disproportionate numbers in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer across racial groups and between urban and rural communities. He observed, "I am a pulmonary and critical care specialist, and my basic science research focuses on the translational aspects of the Wnt pathway, RNA-binding proteins and electrically silent-ion channels in lung cancer... And then I looked at other types of cancer and other diseases, and I knew my life's work would involve bridging the gap between basic science and community-based health care. Underserved patient populations are just that: populations of patients who, for too long, have not been served at the same level of other communities. Knowing this, I am propelled to improve health care delivery and ensure equal access to cutting-edge medical treatments for ALL people."

Most recently, during the pandemic, Dr. Winn launched a nationally heralded Facts & Faith Fridays conversation series, an initiative that creates a dialogue between science, community and faith leaders to combat medical mistrust within the African American community. In addition to providing opportunities for radiation oncologists and other oncology providers to engage directly with the community, other hosted guests have included Jill Biden, EdD., Anthony Fauci, MD, Ned Sharpless, MD, and Francis Collins, MD, PhD. Creating a space for "we" conversations to happen, Dr. Winn believes that “People of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, creeds and geographical areas have a place at the table. We are breaking down barriers together, which is the way that it needs to be to truly make a change."

Dr. Winn grew up in Buffalo, New York, and was the first in his family to attend college, graduating with a BA from the University of Notre Dame and an MD from the University of Michigan Medical School. He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago and a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. He attributes his ability to navigate the educational landscape to the support he received from several mentors at key inflection points in his life and has leveraged this personal experience to shape how he engages others. Since completing training, he has held many diverse leadership roles, including Associate Dean of Admissions at University of Colorado School of Medicine, Associate Vice President of Health Affairs/Associate Vice Chancellor of Health Affairs at University of Illinois Hospital & Health System, and Director of the University of Illinois Cancer Center.  Since 2021, Dr. Winn has served on the American Cancer Society Board of Directors and has been a member of the Department of Veteran Affairs Federal Advisory Board.

The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Dr. Winn was the inaugural recipient of the 2021 Association of American Cancer Institutes’ (AACI) Cancer Health Equity Award and is AACI’s president-elect. Other awards include the National Cancer Institute Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities CURE Program Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medical Fellowships Excellence in Medical Education Award. Dr. Winn also serves on the boards of the American Cancer Society and LUNGevity Foundation. In addition, he is the chair of the National Advisory Committee for the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation’s Diversity in Clinical Trials Career Development Program.

Dr. Winn’s many accomplishments testify to his resolve and motivation. "As I often say about my career, I did not find medicine; medicine found me. Building engines at the General Motors plant in town was the dream job for this Head Start kid born to a teenage mom in working-class Buffalo. At the University of Notre Dame, however, I first heard those words, 'You should consider medical school,' from two men who saw my love of science and potential to do more with it: Revs. Robert Austgen and Joseph L. Walter. I went on to attend the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. While the only direction I would accept for my career was forward, I cannot say that I never looked back then or look back now. Growing up in an economically challenged neighborhood shaped me, and that community and others like them are the ones for which I work tirelessly each and every day."

The ASTRO Honorary Member Award is the highest honor bestowed upon distinguished physicians and researchers in disciplines other than radiation oncology, radiation physics or radiobiology. Dr. Winn will be recognized during ASTRO’s 64th Annual Meeting, October 23-26, in San Antonio.