Cheryl L. Willman, MD, has served as the Director and CEO of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) — Designated University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center (UNMCCC) since November 1999. She is a UNM Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Medicine at the School of Medicine where she holds the Maurice and Marguerite Liberman Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research. Dr. Willman received her M.D. in 1981 from the Mayo School of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. Awarded one of the first Physician Scientist Awards in 1984 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Willman completed her residency and post-doctoral training in pathology and cancer research at the NIH in Bethesda, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Washington in Seattle.
Dr. Willman is an internationally recognized physician-scientist and a national leader in cancer precision medicine, whose research focuses on the use of genomic, next generation genome sequencing, and computational technologies to identify novel cancer-causing DNA mutations that can be translated to better cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. She serves as a co-leader of the NCI TARGET Project (ocg.target.gov), a national initiative in genomic sequencing (of the NCI Cancer Genome Atlas Project) of high risk leukemias. With her collaborators, she discovered novel leukemia-causing mutations more frequently seen in children and adults of Hispanic ethnicity and American Indian genetic ancestry, providing insights into why these individuals fail to respond to treatments developed primarily through studies of non-Hispanic whites. Her discoveries have been translated to several national clinical trials for pediatric and adult leukemia sponsored by the NCI, leading to significant improvements in outcome for these leukemia patients. Dr. Willman has been continuously funded by the NIH, NCI, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for over 30 years. She is a highly cited physician-scientist (H-index: 92; >39,000 citations) who has published over 250 papers reporting her work in the highest quality medical and scientific journals (New Engl J Med; Cancer Cell; Nature Medicine; Nature Genetics; Science; Blood); she also holds 11 patents or patents pending. Dr. Willman is now leading consortia of scientists from UNMCCC and other collaborating institutions focused on discovering the genomic/genetic, environmental, and behavorial mechanisms of cancers (hepatobiliary, genitourinary, colorectal) that disproportionately affect Hispanics and American Indians in the American Southwest and Southern Plains which may underlie their significantly higher cancer incidence and poorer outcomes.
Over the past 20 years, Dr. Willman has led the development of the clinical, research, education, and community outreach programs of the UNMCCC, culminating in 2015 in its designation as one of the nation’s 50 NCI Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers – the leading (top 3%) Cancer Centers of the United States. The 142 oncology physicians, 130 scientists, and more than 700 staff at the UNMCCC are dedicated to providing state of the art, comprehensive, fully integrated cancer treatment for all New Mexicans, conducting world class research, training the next generation of cancer healthcare professionals, and delivering community outreach programs throughout New Mexico’s urban, rural, and tribal communities to overcome the state’s significant cancer health disparities. The UNMCCC provides care for more than 12,800 patients annually and has received the highest accreditations and commendations from all national certifying agencies (NCI, TCJ, ASCO Quality Oncology Practice Initiative, ACR, and the ACOS Commission on Cancer).
Throughout her career, Dr. Willman has received numerous awards from the NCI, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and The W.M. Keck Foundation. She received The Stowell-Orbison Award, The Benjamin Castleman Award, and The Young Investigator Award from the International Academy of Pathology. She was founder and President of the Association of Molecular Pathology and is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Women in Science Hall of Fame. Dr. Willman currently serves on the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors, the NCI-Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, the NCI-DOE Collaborative Working Group, and the Scientific Advisory Boards of 10 other NCI Designated Cancer Centers. Dr. Willman has received several distinguished public service awards, including the 16th Governor’s Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women (2001), The New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award (2005), the New Mexico La Estrella Award (2013), and the New Mexico Humanitarian Award (2014). In 2017, she was elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.