With the death of Robert C. Millikan in October of 2012, we lost a talented and devoted researcher, teacher, and health advocate. He will be remembered for his work in breast cancer and melanoma, his commitment to understanding racial disparities in cancer, and his love of music, sports, and teaching.
Bob originally trained as a veterinarian, earning his degree in 1984 from the University of California, Davis. He practiced veterinary medicine for 3 years before accepting a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at Harvard University. Seeing epidemiology as a way to combine his diverse interests, Bob earned his PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1993. He then accepted a faculty position in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina (UNC), where he worked until his death.
His main research project was the Carolina Breast Cancer Study, through which he dedicated himself to investigating the genetic, behavioral, and environmental causes of breast cancer. The study’s findings have advanced our understanding of breast cancer subtypes and their influence on racial disparities in incidence and mortality. With the newest phase of the study, launched in 2008, Bob hoped to further elucidate race and subtype differences in breast cancer etiology and prognosis. Bob also took part in collaborations around the globe, including several breast cancer genetic consortia and the Genes, Environment and Melanoma Study.
Bob was a patient and accessible advisor. He encouraged creative exploration by his students, while steadily monitoring our progress and keeping us focused and grounded. In addition to his courses at UNC, Bob developed a course in basic epidemiology for cancer survivors and advocates.1 He was the faculty advisor for UNC’s men’s crew club and an accomplished violinist. His students, mentees, and colleagues will remember him as a kind, humble man, who could always make time to talk with others about epidemiology, animals, sports, music, or any other shared interest. Although his life was cut tragically short, one of his favorite quotes reminds us that his legacy lives on in his work and in all who knew him:
“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received - only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.”
—St. Francis of Assisi