By Wendy Sarubbi | March 7, 2016 4:44 pm

Sarah Gitto, a Ph.D. candidate researching what causes pancreatic cancer, is the first Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences graduate student to be selected to UCF’s prestigious Order of Pegasus. The order is the university’s highest student award, given for academic excellence, leadership and service. Gitto was one of five College of Medicine students – including three undergraduates and an M.D. student – of the 20 selected as 2016 Order of Pegasus inductees.

Other medical school honorees, who will be profiled here soon, are: Getasha Doobay and Paulina Le, undergraduates at the Burnett School, Michael Scimeca, from the Burnett School and the College of Arts and Humanities, and Class of 2016 M.D. student Christin Giordano. All will be officially inducted into the Order of Pegasus later this spring.

Gitto, a Jupiter native, is set to earn her doctorate next spring and then hopes to attend medical school. She also earned her Masters and B.S. degrees in the biomedical sciences from UCF. She has always loved science – and finding solutions to unanswered questions. In addition to pancreatic cancer, she has also researched ovarian and breast cancer, glioblastoma, diabetes, ALS and chlamydia while at UCF.

She wants a career as an M.D./Ph.D., a physician scientist – perhaps in pediatric oncology — who can diagnose and treat patients while discovering better treatments for their diseases. “Without research,” she says, “you can’t have great doctors and without great doctors, research goes nowhere.”

She works in the lab of Dr. Deborah Altomare, in the Burnett School’s Cancer Division. There, the two are studying how chronic inflammation of the pancreas, such has pancreatitis, predisposes patients to pancreatic cancer. Both conditions lead to fibrosis, and Burnett researchers are looking to understand how the molecular biology of that condition affects the body’s immune system and increases the risk of cancer. Pancreatic cancer is a fierce enemy – the five-year survival rate is 6 to 7 percent — and patients usually don’t have symptoms until the cancer has spread. “A lot of pancreatic cancer patients today have no hope,” Gitto said. “So anything you can do to advance research helps. We’re trying to understand the common link between inflammation and cancer.”

She said Dr. Altomare has been her role model in how to work hard and have a family. “She is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known,” she said of her mentor. “Even when she has 1,000 different things to do she does them all with a smile on her face.”

“It has been a pleasure being Sarah’s graduate mentor because she has a wealth of energy when it comes to research, training undergraduates and service to UCF and the School of Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Altomare said.

Gitto has volunteered at Camp Boggy Creek since 2008, having donated more than 1,000 hours as a counselor for seriously ill children – many with cancer. She says they have taught her multiple life and medical lessons – including the need that ill children have to just be kids. She hopes her science achievements will help her understand the bigger picture of the diseases that harm her future patients and says that Camp Boggy Creek – where some of her campers have died – has helped prepare her for the challenges of working with children fighting cancer.

The secret to success, she says, is hard work, dedication, being self-motivated and finding work you love. “If you don’t love it, you can’t succeed,” she said. “So get your hands in as many things as possible. If there’s a skill you can learn, learn it. You’ll have more to offer, more experience. Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You do. You just have to prioritize.”

Dr. Griffith Parks, director of the Burnett School, applauded Gitto’s historic selection. “We are all so proud of this,” he said. “Sarah’s induction into the Order of Pegasus is wonderful testimony to the hard work and dedication of our graduate students – to their research, the UCF community and beyond.”

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