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West Newton native Cyktor rises above challenges

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Christie Cyktor of West Newton will earn her chemistry degree from St. Vincent on May 11, 2013, after earning accolades from faculty and administrators at the college, including grant money for her senior research project. She also started a Colleges Against Cancer chapter to honor her late mother and the organization has raised $40,000 for cancer research. She plans to  pursue a master’s degree in forensic science at West Virginia University.

Christie Cyktor of West Newton, graduating from St. Vincent College Saturday with a degree in biochemistry, gave a piece of advice to graduates heading to college soon: “Make connections ... get out there and make friends.”

Cyktor, a 2009 Yough graduate, certainly heeded her own advice in the four years she has spent at the St. Vincent campus in Unity, as she forged relationships with students, faculty and administration — all with kind words about her.

St. Vincent College President Brother Norman W. Hipps said Cyktor will be missed.

“During the past four years, she has had many personal challenges, but I have been impressed with her always-positive spirit,” he said. “We wish her well in her future graduate study.”

Cyktor uses an electric wheelchair because of anthrogryposis, a congenital condition that weakens joints and muscles.

“It's been my whole life and I never let it bring me down or stop me from doing anything,” she said. “I kind of just keep going forward the best I can and make everything work. There's a way around everything.”

She's gotten to know Larry Hendrick, director of facility management at St. Vincent, as her needs have arisen, including automatic door openers, special attention to her routes in the snow and ramps, including one for graduation.

“When she gets her diploma, we want her to get her diploma like everyone else,” he said.

Hendrick, whose son Jake — also a St. Vincent senior — attended a conference with Cyktor in April, called her a tough, hard worker.

“She was always very honest about the needs she had,” Hendrick said.

During the American Chemical Society National Meeting, Cyktor presented her senior research project on “The Inhibitory Effects of Hydrogen Peroxide and Peroxidase on Urine Analysis for Morphine.”

The project, which was funded by an A.J. Palumbo Student Research Grant, also helped earn her a St. Vincent award for academic excellence in biochemistry.

Cyktor explained that she extracted morphine from poppy seeds, then added hydrogen peroxide and peroxidase.

“They mimic the effects of a masking agent that some people buy and add to their urine,” she said, which raises the boiling point and makes it harder to detect the drugs.

Cyktor then created a “buffer” to stop those chemicals from interacting with the morphine, so the test would still detect it.

Unfortunately, she ran out of time to be able to try different concentrations of the buffer and block the masking agent.

“It breaks my heart that the buffer didn't work,” she said. “A lot of people thought it was a really good start for things,” adding that she hopes another senior research project might pick up where she left off.

She plans to continue her studies in forensic science in the fall toward a master's degree from West Virginia University.

Dr. Matthew Fisher, associate chemistry professor, who advises all the biochemistry students, said Cyktor “carried out her responsibilities as a student to the best of her ability” calling her a “strong presence” on campus.

That presence may have been amplified when she founded a chapter of Colleges Against Cancer at St. Vincent, after hearing about the organization from her older sister at Waynesburg University.

Established in 2010, the group has held three Relay for Life events on campus and raised more than $40,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Cyktor started the group because her mother, Lori Balko Cyktor, died from cancer in August 2010.

Molly Ouchis, a St. Vincent sophomore from Reading, first got involved with the group because of her friendship with Cyktor and in honor of a friend stricken with cancer.

Ouchis said she is glad to help not only because of the cause, but because of Cyktor's upbeat leadership.

“She is willing to help you out in any way possible,” Ouchis said. “She always tries to see the bright side of things.”

Cyktor said she got her sense of humor from her mother, a preschool teacher who “wasn't afraid to sit at the kids' table at parties” and her kindness from her father, Jeffrey Cyktor, a pressman who passed away after a heart attack in February 2012.

“He was easy to connect with,” she said. “He was a very friendly guy.”

Carol Vasinko, who was hired as an aide when Cyktor arrived at St. Vincent, said the young woman has persevered through it all, becoming a more mature and stronger adult.

“She went through a lot of trials and tribulations.” Vasinko said. “It's been hell, but I've never seen anyone grow up to be a better person.”

Cyktor said she struggled during those times to focus on schoolwork, but knew her parents wanted her to succeed as much as possible.

“My parents were so proud of what I was doing here,” she said. “They didn't want me to sit and wallow and fail all of my tests. You have your bad days, but you kind of throw yourself into your studies more, just because I still wanted to make them so proud.”

She works through the bad days with her friends and family by her side, including her older sister Jen, twin sister Kari, brother Josh and brother-in-law Anthony.

“I think everyone has good and bad days, but you can't just sit and be sad all the time,” she said. “It's not the life my parents would want for me. Sometimes you have to take a minute and think about them and let it in” but then talk it out and recognize the positive things, Cyktor said.

Certainly, Cyktor will make many memories on Saturday, when she'll fondly remember her four years at St. Vincent College as she goes up the ramp to cross the stage along with the other 300 graduates.

“I think the closer we get, I'm going to be more emotional and sappy and I didn't expect it,” she said.

And, of course, she'll remember her parents, but make sure to keep the day a celebration.

“I know they're still proud and I know that they're still going to be there,” she said. “They're going to be there. They're going to be happy for me.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 724-836-6660.

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