Student Overcomes Obstacles to Graduate

June 20, 2024

Breaking down barriers is nothing new for EWU graduate student Roxanne McPeck, whose academic journey as an Eagle culminated with a Master of Science degree, conferred during Eastern’s June 15 commencement ceremony.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but all the little things from my defense to the final celebrations to commencement were wonderful – nothing was perfect, and I’m glad for each experience just as it was,” McPeck says.

McPeck’s previous attempts at undergraduate education came to a halt after major health issues. Once her health concerns were managed, McPeck was able to return to EWU in 2018 and met with immediate success.

Photo of Roxanne McPeck
Roxanne McPeck

As a biology undergraduate, she was awarded two scholarships and eventually worked as a research assistant with Krisztian Magori, an assistant professor of biostatistics in the department of biology. By her senior year, McPeck was selected as an outstanding biology student. She was also one of 20 seniors awarded Eastern’s Frances B. Huston Medallion award, which recognizes graduating students for their excellence in academics, leadership and service.

In the fall of 2022, McPeck began her master’s program in biology, performing thesis research in the lab of Andrea Castillo, a professor of biology. McPeck received grants from EWU and the Sigma Xi honor society to further her microbiology research, while teaching incoming biology students as a teaching assistant and a graduate student instructor. 

These efforts were again recognized as McPeck was named this year’s Outstanding Graduate Student in Biology, one of the highest honors from the department. McPeck has set herself apart with her high level of achievement, all of which has been accomplished with a disability. She says she couldn’t have done it without the unflagging support of her instructors and fellow students.

“There’s been this throughline of feeling like my efforts have been, not just encouraged, but uplifted and recognized by the department and school,” she says. 

Roxanne McPeck, right, is pictured with her advisor, Andrea Castillo, PhD, at commencement.
Roxanne McPeck, right, is pictured at commencement with her advisor, Andrea Castillo, PhD, professor of biology.

McPeck’s illness has involved mobility issues which require accommodations. When she was named outstanding biology graduate student, which included the honor of carrying C-STEM’s  ceremonial gonfalon (a ribboned banner) at commencement, this presented an issue.

“The faculty were aware that when they selected me, that I only have one free hand while walking,” McPeck says. “I use a cane as a mobility aid. I also don’t have an incredible amount of carrying capacity. Because they know me, and have worked with me to make my experience accessible, they were aware that carrying the gonfalon would be difficult and had planned ahead of time. What they came up with is allowing me to select a peer who I’d like to recognize and have support me, and that peer could carry the gonfalon.”

McPeck chose fellow biology graduate student Eric Beaulaurier, whom she says she respects both academically and intellectually. Beaulaurier will walk alongside McPeck, carrying the gonfalon, and both students will be recognized as gonfalon carriers. 

“I am delighted that I got the opportunity to share that with him. It makes it more special for me, because this whole experience has been one of being part of a community,” says McPeck. 

This accommodation has been one of many the biology department has made in an attempt to be more inclusive. “My experience here has been people breaking down barriers,” McPeck says. 

McPeck herself has been a powerful advocate for inclusivity on campus. She is a member of the inaugural Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Council, where she works with leaders in the office of DEI along with other student ambassadors. “We try to have productive conversations in order to grow as a community,” McPeck says. 

Those conversations, as well as being present on campus with a cane, is a chance for her to normalize disability and increase advocacy, she adds. 

McPeck plans to further her education at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical campus in Denver, where she will pursue a PhD in microbiology. She is particularly interested in investigating bacteria that cause illness, and “the genetic mechanisms of how they cause disease.” 

The goal is to continue her research and, ultimately, earn an appointment as a professor. As a university faculty member, she says, she’ll be able — like the EWU professors who influenced her — to become the sort of teacher and mentor who changes student lives.

“Everything that I will achieve, I hope that the people [at Eastern] who have really supported me are also aware that they share a part of that,” says McPeck.

**Portraits were taken by Gen Heywood Photography.