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Valerie Cwik '77

We Are Knox...

Valerie Cwik '77

Executive Vice President of Research and Medical Director, Muscular Dystrophy Association

Major: Biology

2011 Alumni Achievement Award Winner

A national expert in the diagnosis and treatment of neuromuscular diseases,
Valerie Cwik currently serves as the executive vice president of research and medical director for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Cwik graduated from Knox with a B.A. in biology in 1977, and received her M.D. from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1985. After medical school, Cwik entered academia, teaching neurology and researching neuromuscular diseases at the University of Alberta in Canada and at the University of Arizona. Her research focused on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), muscular dystrophy, and peripheral neuropathy. She served as the director of the MDA/ALS Center at the University of Arizona, which offers clinical services to people affected by ALS, before joining the MDA in 2004. In her current role at the MDA, she advises the MDA's health care services and clinical research programs, interacts with the medical community, answers questions from the public and people served by MDA, and serves as chief spokesperson for MDA in media matters relating to the association's health care services program and advances in scientific research. 

In February 2011, Cwik was recognized by the College with an Alumni Achievement Award for her achievements in medical research and advocacy.

Describe your Knox experience. How has that experience affected your life?
I was a Knox student from 1973 to 1977 -- interesting times surrounding the waning years and eventual end of the Vietnam war -- and Knox was a great place to be as a college student at that time. What has always struck me most about my experiences at Knox is how committed the faculty was to helping students succeed. Knox was challenging, academically and intellectually, as well it should have been. But it was also a very supportive environment. Professors were always accessible, And learning didn't happen just in the classrooms. It happened with conversations in the Gizmo ... at Green Oaks ... at Shakespeare parties  ... and at Latin readings at the home of Steve and Brenda Fineberg.

I don't remember too many of the actual "facts" that I learned at Knox, but I developed critical thinking and writing skills that serve me well to this day. Knox also provided me with the educational foundation for medical school -- I was a Knox-Rush student -- which really set the stage for what has been a wonderful and rewarding career in neurology.

And, equally as important, I developed life-long friends with both faculty and fellow students. As my Knox friends know, I am not very good at regular correspondence, but when we do communicate or get together, we seem to just pick right up where we last left off. I loved being a Knox student and am proud to be a Knox alum. I was also thrilled when my nephew enrolled at Knox in 2003 and was graduated in 2007, 30 years after my graduation.

What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
I've never thought of my life in terms of accomplishments, so I think that I would have to answer this question by saying that it has been my privilege, for more than 20 years, to be a physician caring for individuals and their families facing very challenging, often life-threatening, medical conditions.

As a neurologist, my area of expertise is a group of disorders called neuromuscular diseases. These are disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) and muscular dystrophies -- diseases that are generally progressive and disabling; some are fatal. For most, there are no drugs or other therapies that can significantly alter the progressive course. When I was in practice, I sometimes felt helpless that I couldn't do more for my patients ... that I didn't have a drug to stop their disease. But my patients often told me that they were so grateful for what I did do for them ... that I spent time talking with them about research developments and doing what I could medically to reduce the impact of their disease. Knowing that I was making at least a small difference in their lives was very rewarding to me. Now, in my current position with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, I hope that I am continuing to make a difference in the lives of patients and their families who are navigating sometimes very difficult journeys with neuromuscular diseases.

What will you do to celebrate your Alumni Achievement Award?
First let me say that I'm very honored to receive this award. I look forward to being on campus, reconnecting with a few old friends, and, I hope, making new ones. I've been back to Knox periodically over the past 30-odd years since graduation, and I always enjoy being back on campus.

What words of advice would you offer to current Knox students?
 My initial response was that you know you're getting old when you get asked a question like this. But seriously ... appreciate your time at Knox. Take full advantage of all that Knox has to offer -- its world-class faculty, extracurricular activities, your fellow students. Step outside your comfort zone and take classes that interest you but may not be in your major. Make time for friends and fun. Finally, make certain that you are a responsible citizen of this Earth: give back to your community however you can and work to protect our fragile environment.

Watch the presentation of Cwik's 2010 Alumni Achievement Award by Linda Dybas, professor of biology.