Indiana Daily Student

‘It’s really hard to say goodbye to someone like that’: Remembering Dan Plebanek

<p>The sun sets Oct. 1 behind a memorial to Daniel Plebanek at the corner of Third Street and Indiana Avenue. Dr. Plebanek was given a posthumous Ph.D. after he was killed in an accident last week.</p>

The sun sets Oct. 1 behind a memorial to Daniel Plebanek at the corner of Third Street and Indiana Avenue. Dr. Plebanek was given a posthumous Ph.D. after he was killed in an accident last week.

In front of the Circle K at the corner of Indiana Avenue and Third Street are flowers, pictures and a pumpkin, in honor of Daniel Plebanek’s favorite time of year. 

“One thing that he really loved was fall and Halloween and horror movies,” said Elizabeth Clerkin, an IU doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “It’s really hard knowing that he didn’t get to have one more October.”

Clerkin was best friends with Dan, who passed away Wednesday after being hit by a pickup truck the previous day. He was 27 years old and a doctoral candidate in psychology with Clerkin. 

He was transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis after the accident, where Clerkin said his mom told her he suffered several hematomas in his brain and was on a ventilator. 

“I know he had multiple surgeries, and the doctors really, really worked hard, but there was just nothing that they could do at some point,” Clerkin said. 

The late Dan Plebanek smiles for a selfie with Elizabeth Clerkin. Courtesy Photo

Bonnie Plebanek, Dan’s mom, said in an email he passed away around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night. 

“There are no words to describe how we are all feeling or how we are all reacting,” she said. 

Dan was born on June 1, 1993, and raised in Homer Glen, Illinois. He graduated in 2015 from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and linguistics, in 2017 from Ohio State with a master’s in psychology, then came to IU to pursue a doctorate. 

Clerkin met Dan in 2015 while interviewing for different graduate school programs. Despite being at three of the same interviews, Clerkin spent her undergraduate, graduate and doctorate careers in Bloomington and only saw Dan occasionally. 

“So for a while we were long-distance friends,” Clerkin said. “Talking every day and only getting to see each other at conferences where we would meet up and kind of sneak away from all the work events to go just hang out.”

When Dan got to IU in 2017, professor Karin James said in an email she began to work with him when he began his graduate work in her lab. She described him as a dedicated student and scientist. 

“He had a gift for asking the important questions in his research and designing experiments that were complex and meaningful,” James said.

Dan was studying general category learning and the development of understanding categories in young children, James said. He was set to graduate this upcoming May and has been awarded a posthumous doctorate degree by IU and the College of Arts and Sciences. 

In addition to his academic work, Dan helped mentor undergraduate students, worked as a teaching assistant for James and helped design the course she’s currently teaching, she said. 

“We did research together, taught together and mentored together,” James said. “He was my partner in work. My right arm.”

Since his passing, a GoFundMe has been set up by one of Dan’s family members to raise money for a memorial bench outside the psychology building, Bonnie said. Within an hour, their goal was reached and people continued to donate. 

The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences decided to create the Daniel J. Plebanek Memorial Research Fellowship, where one graduate student in the department will be funded for their research work during the summer. 

As of Tuesday, more than $23,000 has been raised through the GoFundMe. If $25,000 is raised, the fellowship can go on in perpetuity, Bonnie said. 

“We are of course overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and donations that this fund has acquired but hope that it can somehow reach more people and continue to grow,” she said. 

Clerkin said although Dan typically didn’t like attention, the memorial and fellowship will allow him to get the recognition he deserves. 

“He worked really, really hard here,” Clerkin said. “He definitely deserves to be honored on the campus. And it’s really hard to say goodbye to someone like that.”

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