Ohio Northern University, located in the small town of Ada, Ohio, believes in engaging and empowering students through what they call high-impact learning.  This is when students get the chance to roll up their sleeves, apply the knowledge they’ve gained, and actually solve challenges and develop solutions. That’s only one of the many aspects of being a bear.

David DeColibus began his journey as a polar bear in 2012 and graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and an Astronomy minor. “I’ve always had a fondness for science.” He expressed. His dad was a chemistry teacher and although he did not know what he wanted to do for sure he did not see his life going down that path; he did know it would involve science.

In high school, he took an astronomy elective class that he stated he “fell in love with.” According to the American Museum of Natural History, astronomy is the study of everything in the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere. That includes objects we can see with our naked eyes, like the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars along with objects that can only be seen with telescopes or other instruments, like faraway galaxies and tiny particles.

David described his appeal specifying that “ It’s a fascinating field because we can’t really do direct experiments like in most other physical sciences. It also gives you a lot of perspective on our place in the Universe.”

During his time here at Ohio Northern University David started working with Dr. Pinkney, an Astronomy Professor on campus, in the summer of 2013. His work included doing research on a galaxy named NGC 4258 (also known as M106).

This is a color image of the galaxy NGC 3585. Pictures of the galaxy NGC 4258 would look like this when they go to analyze it. (Flash Drive image/ Bradlee McIntosh)

The research David took part in was focused on the black hole within this galaxy as Pinkney specializes in intergalactic black holes. “My research project was to measure the mass of the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole using a few different methods. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, we looked at the speed at which gas and stars orbit the central black hole, which depends on how big the black hole is.” He explained.

Although astronomy researchers from the past have already determined this galaxy’s black hole mass through direct observation of blobs of gas and the method is accurate, it is difficult to apply due to the required specific conditions of the hole. In this particular research, they were trying to compare the answers from each method of measuring for the black hole’s mass to see if they agreed in order to apply them to other galaxies.

“If we try different methods on NGC 4258 and find that the other methods give answers similar to the one we know to be accurate, we can be more confident that those methods are probably giving good estimates for the black hole mass when we apply them to other galaxies.” The research in the end concluded that the various methods did in fact agree. 

After David graduated he took a year off and then coincidently attended the same Ph.D. program that Dr. Pinkney did at New Mexico State University. “My research now is a bit different from what I did at ONU, and I study icy moons in the outer Solar System, particularly the moons of Uranus.” David clarified. 

He is no longer working on the particular research he was at Ohio Northern, but the baton was passed on to Bradlee McIntosh.

Bradlee is a current senior enrolled here at Ohio Northern majoring in Physics and Math. He know from a young age that the ‘college grind’ was for him as he quoted. “ I knew I was good at math” he laughed. At his high school, he took part in career exploration. Here he analyzed the science section “ comparing chemist vs biologist vs physicists.” He later discovered he was more into the physics aspect of it but was still interested in learning about astronomy. 

Bradlee began his research with Dr. Pinkney in February 2021, the second semester of his junior year. Here he began to study the same galaxy as David, NGC 4258. McIntosh stated that “David graduated, halfway through my freshman year. His research with Dr. Pinkney laid the foundational work for this particular galaxy. We are using that research to build on top of.”

His research is similar in the aspects that he is taking the black hole mass along with how the rotation in the galaxy works and taking the hole out in order to apply it to other galaxies to calculate their black hole mass. “The equation is already known but they are attempting to refine it.” Bradlee clarified. 

The Output image is an example of a spectrum that their program produces after it simulates the galaxy. This particular one is not a good fit, but it gets the point across. (Flash Drive image/ Bradlee McIntosh)

Dr. Pinkney and Bradlee, work together in a lab located in the physics department at Ohio Northern. Here Dr. Pinkney writes the program where Bradlee then analysis the galaxy and reports back to him. For most of their research, they use data from The Hubble Space Telescope. Since its launch in 1990 by NASA, it has been used by many scientists to observe some of the most distant stars and galaxies.”It takes a single point source of light and splits it so that you can see each individual line of color and analyze it.” Bradlee rebutted.

This research is not the only one Bradlee has participated in. This past summer he took a trip to Notre Dame University in Indiana, to take part in a premier internship also known as an REU. Bradlee elaborated more on the internship: 

Bradlee McIntosh participated in his research at Notre Dame. This is more hands-on research rather than what he does at ONU. (Flash Drive image/ Bradlee McIntosh)

These two types of research are different in that fact that one is experimental and one is on the computer. Despite this, Bradlee exclaimed that “working more, and getting more experience with Dr. Pinkney on research helped prepare me for the internship.”

It seems that inspiration struck in high school for both of these young men. Both David and Bradlee stated with their own choice of words that they knew for them science would be in their future. This intellectual curiosity began with a spark in high school that then led them to their build-up of accomplishments where they are now. David going for his Ph.D. and Bradlee is just months away from graduating college both with extensive research experience under their belts. 

A build-up of accomplishments is not the only build-up we see here. We see a build of tradition here at Ohio Northern. David began the research that then set the foundation for Bradlee to then build off of. That then raises the question, when Bradlle graduates, will the research be passed down, will the tradition continue? 

Dr. Pinkney responded to this question by stating “I will have other collaborators from other institutions, help write the paper [on this galaxy].  But the next ONU students that work for me will probably work on a different project than NGC 4258.  There will be a lot of work required to pound the student research into a submittable paper, so I could conceivably involve another student in that, but probably not.  I’ll keep both David and Rocky in the loop and they will have to provide comments on the future drafts of the N4258 paper.”

This particular research has to lead to various opportunities for these two men. David reiterated what Bradlee stated previously “ I definitely felt like my time working with Dr. Pinkney helped prepare me for future work in astronomy.” he declared. The story of these two is not the only one like this at ONU. Featured on ONU’s webpage are student stories just like this one. 

The intellectual curiosity experienced as an adolescent led these young men to Ohio Northern where they were presented with the opportunity to take part in research just as other students. The research they took part in enlightened them with experience that led to numerous other opportunities and built a tradition of research collaboration amongst them. This demonstrates one reasoning in why the college proclaims “Small university, huge impact.

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