By Jefferson Huddle and Tiffany Whitfield

In a world dominated by advanced communication technologies, a unique and captivating hobby with wireless communication has taken root at Old Dominion University. McKenzie Denton is at the helm of a new student organization called ODU Amateur Radio Club. During her freshman year, Denton worked hard to start this new student organization, which was influenced by her father, the COVID-19 global pandemic and faculty in ODU’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

In 2020, Denton was a high school student at Kings Fork in Suffolk, Virginia. Most of the schools across the country were fully virtual due to the spread of COVID-19, and she had a lot of extra time on her hands. Like most people she picked up a hobby, but little did she know how far this hobby would impact her and the Monarch community.

“I became very interested in amateur radio when my dad showed me an article about Owen K. Garriott,” said Denton. Garriott was a mission specialist on the Columbia (1983) during the 10-day space shuttle mission STS-9. “He operated the world's first amateur radio station from space, which I found quite fascinating, and I shared with my dad that I wanted to talk to an astronaut one day while in orbit,” said Denton.

Denton’s father helped her in getting study materials to prepare to take the test to obtain her amateur radio license. “My dad encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to gain my license.”

At the height of quarantine, Denton studied and learned more about amateur radio and successfully earned her amateur radio license. “I realized I could talk to somebody in Japan, from Virginia, just from a radio, and I’ve met so many good people in this hobby,” said Denton. “I’ve made so many good friends that I never thought I would make.” She’s been able to make connections to people in NASA, emergency medical doctors, and paramedics.

“Amateur radio is a wonderful way of communicating around the world,” she explained. Drawing a parallel to Citizens’ Band (CB) radio commonly used by truckers, Denton highlighted the key distinction. “Amateur radio has no boundaries. You can talk to somebody across the United States; you can even talk to somebody in space.” She recounted her experience communicating with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station using a radio and a simple antenna.

“I had a conversation with Astronaut Kjell Lindgren while he was aboard the International Space Station by using some simple equipment,” said Denton. She used her cell phone with an app for tracking, a handheld radio for transmitting and receiving, and an arrow Yagi antenna. “I have a signed portrait and a confirmation message from Astronaut Lindgren that he sent to me,” said Denton.

As a rising sophomore majoring in biomedical sciences at ODU, her passion for pursuing a medical degree has only deepened through this hobby and in starting the ODU Amateur Radio Club. Denton said she was given “support and encouragement” from Professor Dennis Watson of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

Established just this year, the ODU Amateur Radio Club has grown remarkably in a short span of time, boasting 10 members. Denton herself played a pivotal role in revitalizing the club, crafting its constitution, and handling the necessary paperwork for its reinstatement. As the club’s president, she oversees various aspects, including finances and member coordination.

“McKenzie was successful due to her persistence, determination, and willingness to work hard! A very impressive Club President,” said Linda Vahala, Ph.D., Associate Professor Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The club’s activities have already begun to make an impact on campus. Denton shared details about a recent event known as the “fox hunt.” In this unique endeavor, participants used handheld antennas to locate a hidden radio transmitter on campus, showcasing the practical application of their skills. “We hid the fox around campus, and we used these handheld tape measure Yagi antennas to find the fox,” Denton explained. The event generated significant interest and engagement, revealing the student body’s untapped curiosity about amateur radio.

Choosing ODU for her studies was easy for Denton, as the university’s campus and proximity to her home in Suffolk, Virginia, made it the perfect fit. “I saw the campus, and I thought it was beautiful and a perfect pick since it’s only about a 20-minute drive from Suffolk,” she explained. Notably, ODU was the only school she applied to, and she was confident in her decision to pursue her academic journey there.

Denton encourages anyone interested in global communication, building their own equipment, and exploring Morse code to consider the club. She emphasized the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment in participating in this hobby.

With its rich history and boundless possibilities, amateur radio offers an escape from the digital norm and a chance to connect on a deeper level. McKenzie Denton’s journey into this world exemplifies the power of curiosity and the joy of discovery. With her leadership and the growing interest in the ODU Amateur Radio Club, the legacy of this unique hobby is sure to thrive.