Physics Graduate Unravels Time with Research

Whether it’s the shifting of shadows around a sundial, the tick-tock of clock gears or the beep of a digital watch, we use man-made devices to tell time. But how do we perceive time? 

That was the question graduating senior Tristan Aft set out to better quantify with research that looks at how rats process time. Under the guidance of physics professor Sorinel Oprisan, Aft studied how rats perceive time using predictive models based on data from experiments conducted with rats at the University of Utah.

Aft created a complex mathematical model to gauge how rats trained in timed behavioral tests respond based on changes to the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory. The results showed that depending on the location of pharmacologically induced changes, a rat’s perception of certain time values (10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds) either increased or decreased – meaning they did their trained task earlier or later.

“It, in part, shows how the sense of timing is organized in the brain,” says Aft, a double major in math and physics with a concentration in computational neuroscience.

That’s heady stuff.

But Aft wasn’t always so focused on space and time. He started out his college career wanting to major in biochemistry. After touring research labs across Germany as part of a study abroad neuroscience seminar with biology professor Christopher Korey, his interests began to change. And when Korey connected Aft with Oprisan, the stage was set for the ambitious student’s switch from biochemistry to physics and math.

Aft worked on his research regarding time perception with Oprisan for three years, an effort that paid off when he won the best poster award for the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Sciences and Mathematics Undergraduate Research Poster Session in April 2018.

“I was really surprised that I won [for physics research],” says Aft, noting that the type of research in the neuroscience concentration is very niche within the realm of physics. “I’m not looking at the molecular structure of a solid. I’m not looking at stars.”

Oprisan was instrumental in shaping him as a researcher, says Aft, who was also published in 2017 as a co-author on related research in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

“I feel like he’s been pretty important in terms of my growth as a student,” says Aft. “I have developed as a researcher, becoming someone who can ask questions and push forward with experiments to find answers.”

As a student in the College’s 4 1 program, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s in mathematical sciences, Aft will remain at the College after graduation this week to complete his master’s degree.

The big question will be what does he do with his time when he leaves CofC? Long-term, the Florida native wants to pursue a doctoral degree in either math or physics. Either way, Aft likes the idea of solving complex problems.

“It’s nice feeling like you understand something,” he says.

Only time will tell what that something is.

Written by: Amanda Kerr for The College Today

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Founded in 1978, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) focuses on providing high-quality and collaborative undergraduate research, scholarly, and creative activity. Among the many activities and networking opportunities that CUR provides, the organization also offers support for the professional growth of faculty and administrators through expert-designed institutes, conferences, and a wide-range of volunteer positions. The CUR community, made up of nearly 700 institutions and 13,000 individuals, continues to provide a platform for discussion and other resources related to mentoring, connecting, and creating relationships centered around undergraduate research. CUR’s advocacy efforts are also a large portion of its work as they strive to strengthen support for undergraduate research. Its continued growth in connections with representatives, private foundations, government agencies, and campuses world-wide provides value to its members and gives voice to undergraduate research. CUR is committed to inclusivity and diversity in all of its activities and our community.

CUR focuses on giving a voice to undergraduate research with learning through doing. It provides connections to a multitude of campuses and government agencies, all while promoting networking and professional growth to its community.