The leader of the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, who played a vital role in transforming it into one of the top-tier cancer centers in the nation, will be leaving for a job at the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Cheryl Willman will announce today that she is stepping down as director and CEO of the cancer center to take the position of executive director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and director of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in August.
She has led the UNM cancer center since 2000. During her tenure, the center has gone from a team of 12 physicians and $7 million in annual cancer research funding to employing 143 physicians and more than 100 cancer scientists who receive more than $50 million per year to research cancer.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised Willman, saying her lifelong dedication to patients, cancer research and quality of life interventions “has been an incredible asset for all of New Mexico.
“I’ve been lucky enough to know Cheryl personally and have seen firsthand her commitment to going above and beyond for her patients,” the governor said. “While she will be sorely missed at UNM, New Mexico is glad to share her expertise with the Mayo Clinic and with the nation. We are so grateful for her many years of service.”
The UNM cancer center received the coveted National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers classification in 2015, a federal designation awarded to just 3% of cancer centers in the country.
“My leadership skills have grown through the most enriching experience and challenge in my life: the opportunity to successfully develop a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNM from ‘the ground up’ in just 15 years,” Willman said in a statement.
“With tremendous support from UNM, the state of New Mexico, and the communities we serve, we built the cancer center with a clear purpose and an ethical imperative: to assure that all New Mexicans would have access to state-of-the-art cancer treatment.” she said.
Starting new role
Willman will oversee the Mayo Clinic’s entire cancer mission, including clinical care, education and training and community outreach. She will oversee cancer programs in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida, as well as international programs in England and the United Arab Emirates.
The Mayo Clinic is one of the nation’s largest academic health care systems, with more than 65,000 employees. It sees more than 1 million patients a year, who come from all 50 states and nearly 140 countries.
“Her accomplishments, experience and outstanding reputation in the national cancer community make her the right choice to lead Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center,” said Dr. Gianrico Farrugia, the president and CEO of the Mayo Clinic.
Willman and her husband, Dr. Ross Zumwalt, a forensic pathologist and former chief of the Office of the Medical Investigator in New Mexico, plan to keep faculty appointments with UNM and the UNM Health Sciences Center and to retain their primary residence in New Mexico. Zumwalt also is assuming a new part-time position at the Mayo Clinic in forensic pathology.
“Cheryl Willman is truly a visionary leader and has been a significant agent of change for not only the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, but also for our University and the entire state of New Mexico,” UNM President Garnett Stokes said in a statement. “Her contributions and those of the incredible team she has brought together have helped to shape the world-class cancer care our patients experience today.”
Willman says one of her goals in her new position will be “to work to ensure that Mayo’s renowned expertise in cancer care delivery is made available to more diverse populations and communities.”
“This is an ethical imperative,” she says.
Staying close to NM
In addition to her administrative leadership role at UNM, Willman is an expert in the field of cancer precision medicine. Her specialty is in using genome sequencing and computational technologies to discover new cancer-causing genomic mutations, which can help diagnose and treat the disease.
Willman co-led a National Cancer Institute project that discovered novel leukemia-causing mutations, providing insight into why people of Hispanic ethnicity and American Indian genetic ancestry had historically failed to respond to traditional treatments developed through studies of non-Hispanic whites.
In a personal statement sent internally to the UNM campus Sunday, Willman said she will continue to collaborate with a team of UNM faculty to lead a large NCI-funded genome sequencing research center at UNM that, through partnerships with tribal nations and Hispanic communities in the Southwest, is focused on discovering genomic, environmental and behavioral mechanisms underlying cancers that disproportionately affect American Indians and Hispanics.
Willman, who has published more than 250 papers and holds 11 patents or patents pending, according to a Mayo Clinic news release, received her medical degree in 1981 from what was then called the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota. She completed her residency and post doctoral training in pathology and cancer research at the Mayo Clinic, University of New Mexico and University of Washington.
Alan Tomkinson, Ph.D., will serve as interim director of the UNM cancer center.
“The UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center has an outstanding leadership team, and I am confident that they will lead the center to new heights,” Willman said.