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'A visionary leader': Director of UNC cancer center to step down next summer

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Dr. Shelley Earp, the former director of UNC Lineberger Cancer Center, spoke at a scientific retreat on May 2, 2023.

Photo Courtesy of UNC Lineberger.

Dr. Shelton Earp announced that he will step down as director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, effective June 2024, according to a Sep. 5 press release in The Well. Earp has served as director of the center since 2018, and though he is stepping down, he will remain in his role as Distinguished Professor of Cancer Research, Medicine and Pharmacology in the School of Medicine. 

This is the second time Earp has stepped down as director; he previously held the position from 1997 to 2014. 

He said he initially stepped down in 2014 to let Dr. Ned Sharpless, professor of Cancer Policy and Innovation at the School of Medicine, lead the center. He and his colleagues thought Sharpless was a spectacular candidate, and "all wanted to have his leadership."

Sharpless left UNC Lineberger in 2017 to become the director of the National Cancer Institute.

Earp said he attended UNC as a medical student in 1966 and was involved in the founding of UNC Lineberger. 

“I had an interest not only in research, but also in helping other people be successful in that," he said. "I started to do administration and combine my love of being a doctor and love of doing research."

Earp added that his work has involved recruiting faculty members who conduct cancer research across eight schools and 40 departments at UNC. 

“The job has been to help bring people together, to help the schools and departments recruit people and then to build a research infrastructure,” he said.  

Professor of Epidemiology Melissa Troester co-leads the CBCS3 program with Earp at UNC Lineberger — a study investigating breast cancer disparities faced by women.

Troester said Earp has been a “visionary leader” for the project because he values the people who work at the cancer center. 

“He recognizes the important contribution of many, from our state partners to our study participants and data collection staff,” she said. 

Although Earp will no longer serve as director of the center, Troester said she will always engage with Earp on scientific studies and ask him for advice, which she said is the “core” of who he is, regardless of his role.

Over the next year, Earp said he wants to prepare the next director for success. With the help of Sharpless, Earp said he will lead the national search for the next director. 

By stepping down as director, Earp said he will have more time to advise students and give guest lectures. 

Eden Zewdie, a graduate research assistant in the department of pharmacology, works with Earp in his lab studying breast cancer cells. She said despite his many responsibilities in the cancer center, the commitment he shows to his lab motivates her to succeed. 

“He makes time for us and every time we speak to him about our results you can see his eyes light up and everything. He loves what he does,” she said. 

Vice Dean for Research at the School of Medicine Blossom Damania, said she was hired at UNC Lineberger by Earp twenty-three years ago. His mentorship over the years has paved the way for her career, she said. 

“He just loves UNC, he loves Lineberger, he's been here for so long,” she said. “In addition to being really smart and a dedicated person, he's kind and considerate.” 

Earlier this year, Earp was presented with the Oliver Max Gardner Award, which recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the health of humanity. 

Troester said Earp is deserving of this award because he has changed the lives of cancer survivors by focusing on the research community. 

“He prioritizes scientific, public health and clinical impact in everything he does," she said. "He always stays focused on what matters to the people of North Carolina."

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Although Earp has distinguished himself as a top cancer researcher, he said his work has always been about bringing people together. 

"I think helping young faculty develop across this whole spectrum and understand and get together with each other is probably the thing I'm proudest of," he said.

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