Marie Claire Chelini
Forty-eight years. That’s more than twice the average age of your typical Duke undergrad. That is how long Dr. David McClay, the Arthur S. Pearse Distinguished Professor of Biology, has been teaching Cell Biology to cohort after cohort of Duke students.
Today, the Biology department celebrated Dr. McClay’s last lecture with a friendly “zoom-bombing”. Dozens of colleagues and ex-students flooded his last virtual lecture to celebrate his ability to instill a passion for Biology in the classroom.
A passionate teacher, Dr. McClay knows exactly how many students he has had over the years: over 7000. For reference, that is almost 1000 more students than the total of undergraduates admitted to Duke in the Fall of 2020.
“Dave conveys pure enthusiasm with science,” Dr. Richard Fehon said. Dr. Fehon, now a professor at the University of Chicago, was a student of Dr. McClay. He took Dr. McClay’s class in 1978, then taught it alongside his mentor. “Dave is an amazing storyteller and actor. He loves being in front of an audience, and would get excited and worked up every time he made a point with the students.”
“Dave is special in his ability to bring stories to students,” said Dr. David Sherwood, Professor of Biology at Duke and organizer of the “zoom-bombing”. “He is always on, and always engaging.”
A few ex-students shared their testimonials online. “Unlike anyone else, Professor McClay made cell biology exciting, relevant, and clear, and he taught it with such conviction,” said Dr. Chris Lansford, who is currently an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician.
Even the anonymous feedback on the often-feared website “Rate My Professor” is unanimous. “McClay is literally a genius. He is honestly a treasure of Duke University, and is nationally renowned. So smart, so funny, and so inspiring,” said one anonymous user.
Another complements: “McClay's passion for the subject is contagious. The class was very hard and required a lot of studying for the tests but in the end it really showed me that I love majoring in biology.”
It is not common to see students love a hard class, but Dr. McClay made it worth it. “This is definitely one of the more difficult classes in the Biology major, but I would take it just for Dr. McClay,” says another anonymous student.
An anecdote shared by many ex-students illustrates Dr. McClay’s commitment to his class: every year, he and his wife would invite all of his students to their house, in groups of 25, to share a delicious lasagna dinner. With a smile, Dr. McClay adds to the anecdote: “Our son used to say: “there’s January, February, Lasagna, April, and so on.”
His colleagues are also quick to praise Dr. McClay’s contribution to the department: “Dave McClay was one of the main reasons I chose to come to Duke,” says Steve Nowicki, professor of Biology. “I figured that if someone could be that devoted as a teacher and that successful as a researcher at Duke, it was the place for me.”
Dr. McClay’s contributions to science go way beyond the classroom. Among many other prizes, he received a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology and the International Society of Differentiation in 2016. This award recognizes not only contributions to the scientific field, but also success in teaching and mentorship.
Dr. McClay’s students have indeed gone on to hugely successful careers. Over a dozen of his ex-mentees are now faculty at some of the top universities in the country, including Duke.
Dr. Sherwood, one of McClay’s ex-students, points out a particularly important quality of his mentor. He says that despite his busyness and his devotion to his students, Dr. McClay was always first and foremost a family man. In an environment known for valuing overwork and a “career above all” mentality, this quality made him a particularly inspiring role model.
Dr. McClay gently shakes his head while the accolades pour in through the computer screen. Current students, ex-students and colleagues all smile and applaud, while Dr. McClay reminds everyone of what really matters: “To the students who are still on this call,” he says, “you are the reason why I do this.”