Watching the Stars

Dennis McClure, EdD ’11, enjoys being back in a college classroom as a doctoral student after a 20-year break and has spent the last several years conducting research in his chosen field of astrophysics.

He believes that he’s lucky to be able to work with some of the university’s top astronomers as they gaze at the stars, using computer-controlled telescopes in North and South America.

While taking some good-natured ribbing from his much-younger classmates—some were in diapers when he began his high school teaching career in the mid-1980s in northeast Indiana—McClure also enjoys working one-on-one with students, serving as a mentor as they learn advanced mathematics and related subjects.

But despite all the positives, McClure admits that life has thrown him some curveballs lately. Since starting the doctoral program, the former high school science teacher battled back from leukemia only to awaken on a cold Christmas morning blind in his right eye.

Glaucoma resulted in a prosetic eye to replace his useless one, and the disease has reduced his vision in his remaining eye. This has forced him to increase the size of text on the computer to read or do homework. Unable to drive, he catches a ride daily from his home in Fort Wayne to continue his studies at a university nationally recognized as a disability-friendly institution.

'”It’s not been easy, but my family and friends have been there for me,” McClure says. “I would also like to thank Indiana Vocational Rehab and the League for the Blind for showing me what opportunities and equipment are available to me. I cannot claim success without thanking those who have been there when I needed help the most.”

Currently in remission and facing the eventual loss of all vision, McClure prefers to think of his illnesses as simple bumps in the road on his goal of becoming a college professor.

“There is nothing I like to do more than teach, and I want to do that on the college level, where students are serious about their education,” he says. “When I was teaching high school, I loved it when I saw the students suddenly get it.. Because I was in a small high school, I had some students in classes for several consecutive years. It was fun to see them mature.”

Long Distance Observation

His illness also won’t keep the near 50-year-old from completing an eight-year research project on variable stars. A star is classified as variable if its apparent brightness as seen from Earth changes over time due to variations in the star's actual luminosity or because it is eclipsed by an orbiting companion star.

McClure has gathered data on about 15 such stars and plans to examine dozens more. He has been using Ball State’s telescope as well as remote controlled instruments in Arizona and Chile. The university recently started using a refurbished telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, joining a similar instrument at Kitt Peak in Arizona. The devices were acquired by the Southeastern Association for Research and Astronomy (SARA), which Ball State has been a member of since 2005.

“I don’t think many people can say they’ve used three telescopes on two different continents in the same night,” McClure says.

A Desire to Teach

Planetarium director Ron Kaitchuck says McClure has the potential to be an outstanding researcher and educator.

“Dennis brings an incredibly strong work ethic to both the classroom and to his research,” Kaitchuck says. “He is a great example to sometimes much-younger classmates.”

When he’s not reviewing the latest data taken from the two telescopes that are downloaded onto Ball State’s computer systems, McClure can be found assisting undergraduates in the university’s Learning Center a few hours a week.

“Many students don’t want to take science courses because they are scared about doing the math, but if you put it into simple language, you can get them to see how really simple it is,” McClure says. “That is the reason I came to Ball State to get my doctorate. I want to teach. I want to be in the entry level courses to get students to see how cool science can be. If we can hook a few of them, we may get some really talented students to think about careers in science.”