Going the distance
As an elite athlete in the United States college system, Sarah Vitug pushed herself on the training track.
She wanted to do everything possible to make sure she could be at the front of the pack come race day.
The hardworking middle-distance runner competed in both track and cross country as an undergraduate biopsychology and communications double major.
Sarah kept running and also notched up a master’s degree in education.
The decision to pursue medicine came relatively late – at age 20 – as she realised her Olympic dream might elude her.
Now, the 26-year-old Californian is taking the dedication she showed on the track into her studies, as she strives for a career in the highly competitive field of academic dermatology.
The UQ-Ochsner program appealed to Sarah as it gave her the chance to tick another goal off her bucket list – studying abroad.
The four-year UQ-Ochsner MD program involves two preclinical years at UQ in Brisbane, followed by two clinical years at the UQ-Ochsner Clinical School in New Orleans.
But after finishing the two-year preclinical program, Sarah decided to stay in Australia to add a research higher degree to her already impressive CV.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have an opportunity like this again, so even though it’s going to add another year to my studies I really wanted to do it,” Sarah says.
The incentive to explore skin cancer research came while on a clinical elective at the Melanoma Institute Australia.
Her mentor, Associate Professor Robyn Saw, proposed a project she could help with.
“I soon realised a research degree would best suit my endeavours."
Sarah is now undertaking her Master of Philosophy at the UQ Diamantina Institute.
She is investigating why melanomas are more aggressive in pregnancy.
Sarah couldn’t have asked for a better research coach. Her supervisor is Associate Professor Kiarash Khosrotehrani, a leading clinical scientist interested in skin biology, regenerative medicine and skin cancer.
Laboratory work has presented a new set of challenges for Sarah.
"We medical students like to think we can work things out ourselves, but I’ve learned to ask for help as soon as I need it, and everyone has been incredibly supportive – from honours students to senior researchers.”
Despite the demands of research and study, Sarah continues to push her physical limits.
She remains a keen runner, and is now an enthusiastic Crossfit competitor.
But she was never sold on working in sports medicine.
“In college I was a public health volunteer in Honduras, and with a shelter in Santa Barbara,” Sarah says.
“I think there are other demographics who really need help more than athletes do.”
Interestingly though, it was while dealing with sporting injuries as a runner that she realised what sort of doctor she wanted to be.
“Some would see you and write a referral and that would be it.
"Others would take the time to really understand what was going on and work out the best way forward. I want to be that doctor.”
After her research year, Sarah returns to the US for the clinical phase of her medical degree and hospital rotations.