Elizabeth Kaweesa demonstrates the power of perseverance. In the lab, perseverance propels her to keep experimenting with potential biomedical solutions. Perseverance also drives her work toward a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus community.

A third-year Ph.D. student from Uganda, Kaweesa was drawn to Oregon State to work in the research lab of Sandra Loesgen, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. In the Loesgen lab, Kaweesa’s research focuses on mensacarcin, a natural product obtained from a soil bacterium that is selectively cytotoxic against melanoma.

Kaweesa studies how mensacarcin kills melanoma cells. She says knowing the mechanism is the basis for what experiments can move the research forward.

There is potential for therapies using specific pathways of proteins that mensacarcin targets. However, it could take 15 to 20 years and testing up to 10,000 different compounds to produce a drug for treating melanoma, if one can be found. That’s where Kaweesa’s perseverance comes in.

“Every step is a learning process. Know that you are going to fail, but you learn how to persevere,” Kaweesa says. She keeps a quote attributed to Winston Churchill in her office: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

- Third-year Ph.D. student Elizabeth Kaweesa

Kaweesa presented her findings on mensacarcin in April at the New England Science Symposium, hosted by Harvard Medical School. Her presentation was part of the Biomedical Science Careers Conference, which aims to provide networking opportunities and resources to minority graduate students in science, medical and dental school. The Office of Institutional Diversity provided a travel scholarship for Kaweesa to attend.

While Kaweesa is moving forward in the lab, she’s also making progress toward a more inclusive and diverse environment at Oregon State. As a student representative on the President and Provost’s Leadership Council for Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice, Kaweesa works on a student recruitment initiative. The team is contacting high school counselors across Oregon to learn how the university can reach more students of color and find out what these students and their parents want to know about OSU and the admissions process.

In her own experience as a student, Kaweesa has sought out and found supportive communities. In the chemistry department, “I’m surrounded by wonderful colleagues,” she says. “My Principal Investigator (PI), Dr. Sandra Loesgen, is amazing — patient, supportive, hardworking and goal-driven.” Kaweesa is active in the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center and president of the Black Graduate Student Association. She also has a group of friends, different women of color who rely on and support each other.

Kaweesa has a long list of mentors at Oregon State. Besides her PI, she names her graduate committee members, academic advisor Marilyn Stewart, Chief Diversity Officer Charlene Alexander, Black Cultural Center Assistant Director Terrance Harris, Diversity and Cultural Engagement Associate Director Jason Dorsette and Sociology Professor Dwaine Plaza. She also meets regularly with Jennifer Brown, outgoing dean of the Graduate School and advisor for the Black Graduate Student Association. Brown was an early source of inspiration.

“I remember being in the auditorium at my first Graduate School orientation and seeing someone who looked like me in a position of leadership,” Kaweesa says. “I thought, ‘she did it, I can do it!’”

Kaweesa believes policies affecting diversity should be made a priority, and beyond statements and initiatives, “we need to start living it,” she says. That means more diversity training for faculty and staff tailored for what they need to know, including the history of race in Oregon.

On an individual level, Kaweesa says it starts with having a conversation and being willing to listen. “When you hear my perspective, the thoughts I have walking down the street or going to a store, your eyes would be opened to a different worldview,” she says. It’s important to have these conversations, share experiences, learn from someone else’s point of view and not immediately become defensive.

Throughout her time at Oregon State, in the lab and in the community, Kaweesa says she’s “learned to keep learning, keep fighting and never give up.” The reason she perseveres is simple:

“Education is freedom, and once you know better, you do better.”