2021 Brings Changes to DCI Research Programs & Research Leadership

McDonnell Research Lab
Michael Kastan
Michael B. Kastan, MD, PhD

January 1, 2021, marked Duke Cancer Institute's 49th year as an NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the first to be so designated by the NCI Cancer Centers Program that grew out of the National Cancer Act of 1971. The NCI Cancer Centers Program is one of the anchors of America’s cancer research effort.

As an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center, DCI has, until recently, maintained eight basic, clinical, translational and population science NCI-Designated Research Programs — each designed to address research opportunities impacting cancer care.

As of the first of the year, however, the Research Programs have undergone a reconfiguration into seven such programs.

In a recent message to faculty, DCI director Michael B. Kastan, MD, PhD, detailed these changes, which included some new program names and some newly appointed leaders. Additionally, Kastan announced the appointments of two new associate directors — in Basic Research (last year) and in Translational Research (this year).

"These changes are a result of many months of discussions among a broad group of DCI leaders and have been enthusiastically endorsed by our External Scientific Advisory Committee," said Kastan. "We believe that these changes reflect the goals of DCI, the expectations of the NCI, and better support the current and future needs and research efforts of our faculty."

Senior Research-Leadership Changes

Donald McDonnell
Donald McDonnell, PhD
Chris Counter
Chris Counter, PhD

Mark Dewhirst, DVM, PhD, stepped down from his active faculty position last year, including his long-standing role at DCI as associate director for Basic Research. Christopher Counter, PhD, who has been active in DCI leadership for many years, stepped up to fill this important position.

Bruce Sullenger, PhD, who has served as associate director for Translational Research at DCI for nearly a decade, recently stepped down from this role. Donald McDonnell, PhD, has taken his place.

"We express our sincerest gratitude to Mark and Bruce for their years of dedicated leadership and welcome Chris and Donald to their new roles," said Kastan.

2021 Research Program Reconfiguration & Reorganization

DCI's newest Research Program leaders: TOP ROW Jen-Tsan Ashley Chi, MD, PhD (Cancer Biology) Leah Zullig, PhD (Cancer Prevention, Outcomes and Survivorship); Micah Luftig, PhD (Cancer Biology); MIDDLE ROW John Strickler, MD, Shannon McCall, MD & Dorothy Sipkins, MD, PhD (Precision Cancer Medicine) BOTTOM RIGHT Kyle Walsh, PhD (Neuro-Oncology) NOT PICTURED: Katherine Garman, MD (Gastroenterology)

Kastan welcomed DCI's newest Research Program leaders: Micah Luftig, PhD & Jen-Tsan Ashley Chi, MD, PhD (Cancer Biology); Leah Zullig, PhD (Cancer Prevention, Outcomes and Survivorship); Kyle Walsh, PhD (Neuro-Oncology); and John Strickler, MD, Shannon McCall, MD, & Dorothy Sipkins, MD, PhD (Precision Cancer Medicine) and Katherine Garman, MD (Gastroenterology).

He also expressed his appreciation for the continuing service of Ann Marie Pendergast, PhD, Kathryn Pollak, PhD, Meira Epplein, Scott Antonia, MD, PhD, Stefanie Sarantopoulos, MD, PhD, David Ashley, MD, PhD, David Kirsch, MD, PhD, and Nimmi Ramanujam, PhD, as Research Program leaders, many in re-imagined capacities.

And Kastan extended his deep gratitude to DCI's out-going Research Program leaders — Sue Jinks-Robertson, PhD, Sandeep Dave, MD, Nelson Chao, MD, MBA, Jeffrey Crawford, MD, Dan George, MD, Gerard Blobe, MD, PhD, Andrew Berchuck, MD,  Donald McDonnell, PhD, and Shelley Hwang, MD, MPH — "for their dedication and commitment, over many years, to guiding and strengthening our Research Programs.



  • One broad-based basic cancer science research program:

    Cancer Biology (CB), co-led by Micah Luftig, PhD; Jen-Tsan Ashley Chi, MD, PhD; and Ann Marie Pendergast, PhD

  • Two population science research programs:

    Cancer Prevention, Outcomes and Survivorship (CPOS), led by Kathryn Pollak, PhD; and Leah Zullig, PhD

    Cancer Risk, Detection and Interception (CRDI), led by Meira Epplein, PhD; and
    Katherine Garman, MD.
  • Three discipline-focused research programs that span the spectrum from basic to translational to clinical research:

    Immuno-Oncology (IO), led by Scott Antonia, MD, PhD; and Stephanie Sarantopoulos, MD, PhD

    Precision Cancer Medicine and Investigational Therapeutics (PCMIT), led by John Strickler, MD; Shannon McCall, MD; and Dorothy Sipkins, MD, PhD

    Radiation Oncology and Imaging (ROI), continuing to be led by David Kirsch, MD, PhD; and Nimmi Ramanujam, PhD

  • One disease-focused research program:

    Neuro-Oncology (NO), led by David Ashley, MD, PhD; and Kyle Walsh, PhD


Note: This article was updated on March 17, 2021, to reflect an additional leadership change. 

Research Program Organization Chart (expand to view)


Program Name

Program Leader(s)


Cancer Biology

Ann Marie Pendergast, PhD

Micah Luftig, PhD

Jen-Tsan Ashley Chi, MD, PhD


Cancer Prevention, Outcomes and Survivorship

Kathryn Pollak, PhD

Leah Zullig, PhD


Cancer Risk, Detection and Interception 

Meira Epplein, PhD

Katherine Garman, MD



Scott Antonia, MD, PhD

Stefanie Sarantopoulos, MD, PhD



David Ashley, MD, PhD

Kyle Walsh, PhD


Precision Cancer Medicine and Investigational Therapeutics

John Strickler, MD

Shannon McCall, MD

Dorothy Sipkins, MD, PhD


Radiation Oncology and Imaging                                       

David Kirsch, MD, PhD

Nimmi Ramanujam, PhD

*NOTE: This chart updates the Research Programs page on the DCI website and the associated individual Research Program pages on the DCI site. Those pages will be updated in the coming weeks.