New Scholarship Honoring Cynthia Rask ’80 Grants Full-Tuition

Pam Rask’s vocabulary to describe her sister, Cynthia Rask, MD ’80, is almost infinite—a Monopoly champion, responsible global citizen, cat- and fashion-lover, well-known epileptologist, a Minnesota girl. When Dr. Rask passed away suddenly in 2017, Pam and their family wanted one phrase to be how she’d always be remembered: charitably-minded. 

“Cynthia was charitably-minded. She was a person who always tried to do good, and she lived her life to help others,” Pam said.

This fall, the University of Minnesota Medical School will award its first student with the Cynthia A. Rask Medical School Scholarship—a full-tuition scholarship created by Pam and her family. The timing of the award aligns with what would have been Dr. Rask’s 40-year anniversary since graduating from the Medical School.

“She was very attached to her home state of Minnesota, and I knew she was loyal to the Medical School,” Pam said. “We decided to use our inheritance from her and turn it back to do some good within the state.”

A Minnesota Girl

Young Cynthia Rask and family

Dr. Rask, a native of Hibbing, Minn., moved back and forth between New York and Minnesota to earn her education. She started in Ithaca, New York, to complete her undergraduate degree at Cornell University as a pre-med student. Her deep love for Minnesota brought her home where she earned her medical degree from the Medical School in 1980 before leaving for the University of Rochester in Monroe County, New York, for a residency in internal medicine and neurology. By 1985, she returned to Minnesota again, this time, as an epilepsy fellow in St. Paul when she met lifelong friend Karen Marienau, MD, MPH ‘93.

“Our careers and life paths changed many times over the years, but we continued to stay in touch. I went to medical school and became a doctor—a choice Cynthia wholeheartedly supported and provided ongoing encouragement,” Dr. Marienau said. “Cynthia was very smart, accomplished and respected in her various fields throughout her career. But more importantly, she was kind, extremely generous, compassionate, supportive of others, down-to-earth, adventurous and able to connect with people from all walks of life.”

A Well-Known Epileptologist

Dr. Rask eventually transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry, working six years at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the director for the Division of Clinical Evaluation and Pharmacology/Toxicology in the Office of Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies. Her leadership helped advance hundreds of novel medicines, and she earned eight different FDA awards in recognition of her work. The knowledge she gained at the FDA benefited many, including Susan Abushakra, MD, chief medical officer for Alzheon, Inc.

“Over the span of 10 years, I worked with Cynthia on several complicated programs for novel neurologic drugs for diseases with large unmet need. Cynthia advised us on regulatory strategy, study design, drug safety and preparation of dossiers for FDA,” Dr. Abushakra said. “This included developing Botox as treatment in post-stroke spasticity and chronic migraine, which were novel indications with few treatment options at the time. Both programs went on to earn FDA approval and are now widely-used, effective treatments.”

Dr. Rask later left the FDA to start her own medical and regulatory consulting company in San Francisco, working for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, universities and several non-profit organizations, including The Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. During her time in the industry, she met Terri Sebree, president of Zynerba Pharmaceuticals.

“Cynthia made incredible contributions to development of new therapies for epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s Disease,” Sebree said. “Her work delivered important, novel products for treatment of several neurological conditions that provided treatment to patients and relieved their suffering from these conditions.”

A Responsible Global Citizen

Cynthia Rask and group

“She had a strong sense of ethical and moral responsibility,” Pam said. “She really cared for her patients when she practiced medicine, and she really cared for the fate of the children that she was trying to help.”

Some of those children, beyond the ones she helped solely through research and clinical care, lived thousands of miles away in Wolaita Soddo, Ethiopia. For many years, she supported the organization, Aerie Africa, a U.S.-based non-profit organization dedicated to providing a home for orphaned and vulnerable children in the region. 

“Anything to do with children was her top priority,” said Teresa O’Leary. She met Dr. Rask more than 15 years ago, and she recalled a time when Dr. Rask set up a fundraiser inside her San Francisco clothing store, Margarety O’Leary, in support of Aerie Africa.

“She had made several trips to Ethiopia to visit and provide medical care for the children. I helped Cynthia shop for personal care products, school supplies, toothbrushes. She brought with her as much stuff as her suitcases would allow,” O’Leary said. “Anyone in need, Cynthia was there to help. I miss her dearly.”

Because of her friends and family, Pam says Dr. Rask’s memory will live on through this Medical School scholarship.

“Our goal is to change someone’s life, to benefit a student from rural Minnesota who has limited financial resources and give that student the chance to go to Medical School because education is transformative,” Pam said. “It takes you into a different life. It takes you into different circumstances. This scholarship will, hopefully, open up the possibility for them to pursue all opportunities.”

To make a gift to this scholarship, visit this link or email Elsa Scheie, development officer, at escheie@umn.edu.

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