On a Mountaintop in Vermont

As an undergraduate, Dr. David McClay was a man of many interests, curious and adventurous and carefree. He was fascinated by all that his school had to offer him, and spent his four years at Penn State exploring anthropology, philosophy, and a number of other majors before eventually settling with biology. Despite growing up knowing that he wanted to be a professor like his father, Dr. McClay was content with living life day-by-day, relishing each moment in its present.

When he went on to graduate school at the University of Vermont, a decision he made rather spontaneously after encouragement from his father, Dr. McClay was still rather unhurried about his future. But in the time he spent there, enjoying the serenity of the mountains and taking time alone in his thoughts, he began to ponder. He wondered about life later on, the kind of person he wanted to be, the things he wanted to do, who he wanted to love. These years were integral to his growth and maturity. By the end, he had come up with three things.

  1. He knew he wanted to be successful.
  2. He was willing to work hard for it.
  3. He was going to love it.

He later went on to earn his PhD at UNC, and spent his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago. These years eventually led him to Duke, where he has been since.

When asked about his favorite part of working in research, Dr. McClay told me that he loved to reduce questions down to ask how the little, smaller processes work. He enjoyed the creativity that comes with his research, as well. But the thing that is the most rewarding to him, he says, “is the illumination in the eyes of students when they get it.” As a professor and mentor, he is a key figure in introducing students to research, guiding them along the path of discovery. To witness as something in them clicks, as the project they’ve been working on for months or even years falls into place, to see that joy and excitement is, he tells me, his favorite part about doing what he does.

One of his favorite moments in the lab, however, is a discovery of his own. In the 1970s, after the emergence of monoclonal antibodies, he was the first to find markers for individual cell types. This marked his entry into the field, as he presented his results at a meeting for sea urchin researchers. The audience was stunned by his brilliant and colorful images; red and blue and green illuminated each component of the sea urchin embryo “just like a Christmas tree,” Dr. McClay recounts, eyes bright and animated.

Those vivid memories of the feeling of success, of hard work finally paying off, and of recognition still bring tears to his eyes. But despite that, his journey–as did everyone’s–has had its bumps and bruises. He remembers one time that stood out from the others, when he so believed in his hypothesis that he refused to acknowledge the data he gathered suggesting otherwise. He hadn’t realized at the time, but that experience allowed him to understand that the most principal goal in research is having a correct outcome, not to prove your own hypothesis. To overcome mentalities like the one he struggled with, he offers a simple, yet significant piece of advice to me, and to others in my position:

“You have to learn to reduce your fear of failing. It’s okay if you are wrong.”

On his own time, Dr. McClay continues to be a man of many interests. He enjoys tending to his flower garden, biking, reading, skiing and traveling, among other things. He has mastered how to balance his priorities between loved ones, pleasure, and work, all of which are equally as important to him. Over the years, he has had to fight his own ego, learn to embrace difficult truths, and power forward into frightening new beginnings. He has since found success, he has worked hard for it, and he has loved every moment of it.

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