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Northwestern launches Ronald and JoAnne Willens Center for Nano Oncology

A group photo of a ribbon cutting.
Ronald and JoAnne Willens (center) mark the ceremonial grand opening of the Ronald and JoAnne Willens Center for Nano Oncology with (left) Chad Mirkin and President Morton Schapiro and (right) Milan Mrksich.

EVANSTON - Northwestern University marked the official grand opening of the Ronald and JoAnne Willens Center for Nano Oncology with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, April 26. Headquartered within the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) at Northwestern, the center is named in recognition of a $10 million gift from Ronald and JoAnne Willens ’81 P, ’84 P, ’11 GP, ’15 GP, ’19 GP in 2015.

Led by Chad A. Mirkin, George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of the IIN, the Willens Center supports interdisciplinary research focused on developing and applying advances in nanotechnology to treat the most aggressive types of cancer.

“The potential for using nanotechnology in the fight against cancer is vast,” Mirkin said. “The generous support from the Willens family is enabling researchers to work toward the development of new medicines that can attack the disease at its genetic roots. Certain types of nanostructures, spherical nucleic acids in particular, can deliver therapeutics into tissues many drugs normally will not enter, including the brain and skin.”

At the ceremony honoring the Willenses, attended by approximately 70 faculty, staff, students, alumni and other University supporters, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro thanked the couple for their leadership and generosity.

“Through their visionary gift, Ron and JoAnne have made it possible for us to take a significant step toward understanding and combating cancer, by bringing great students, great faculty and great staff together in a space that allows them to function at the highest level,” Schapiro said. “Ron and JoAnne are passionate about advancing technologies that bring improvements to people’s lives. We are indebted to them for their extraordinary commitment to this effort and to Northwestern.”

Long-time supporters of the University, the Willenses have contributed more than $20 million to Northwestern throughout We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern. In 2011, the couple made a $10 million gift to Northwestern, also for nanotechnology research. In honor of that gift, the top three floors of an addition to the Technological Institute, housing some of the University’s most outstanding nanoscientists and engineers, were named the Willens Engineering Life Sciences Wing. In addition, the Willenses are members of NU Loyal, the giving society recognizing consistent annual giving to Northwestern.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Ron Willens said he and his wife were humbled by the University’s achievements in research. “Ten or 15 years ago, who would have imagined that a tiny submicroscopic particle could be used to transport the means to potentially treat and cure many cancers? With this gift, we are grateful that we are able to contribute to this endeavor where minds can do research, innovate and stretch their imagination to find new frontiers to help humanity,” he said.

JoAnne Willens added, “It’s our desire to improve, grow and contribute to making the world better. We are grateful for that opportunity.”

Ron Willens is a retired physicist who co-founded the technology company Livingston Enterprises, which Lucent Technologies bought in 1997. The company made remote access equipment and software that allowed hundreds of users to dial into large corporate networks or internet service providers. Before creating the company, he worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories and as an associate professor of materials science at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor of science, master of science and Ph.D. in engineering and physics.

JoAnne Willens is a retired graphic engineer for Los Angeles County and a retired technical illustrator.

The Willens family includes two generations of Northwestern alumni. Ron and JoAnne Willens’ sons, Steven ’81 and Kevin ’84, and granddaughters, Jaclyn ’11 and Nicole ’15, are alumni. Their grandson, Kirk ’19, is a current student.

The funds raised through the “We Will” Campaign are helping realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidify the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at

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