Physics Graduate Unravels Time with Research

Physics Graduate Unravels Time with Research

Commencement is a time of reflection and new beginnings. As the College prepares to send the Class of 2018 across the Cistern Yard May 11-12, The College Today will share a sampling of how some of our graduating seniors spent their time at CofC, and what comes next.


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.

Tristan Aft (Photos by Reese Moore)

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.


Other notable spring graduates from the School of Sciences and Mathematics include:

  • James Peyla, a marine biology major, was named a Hollings Scholars by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2016. A William Aiken Fellow within the Honors College, he has participated in several research projects at the College and has been a fixture at the Grice Marine Lab. Peyla plans to pursue a Ph.D. in marine biology.
  • Jeniffer Soto Perez, an Air Force veteran and geology major, has been involved in several research projects in the community including one for Holy City Brewing to study alternate treatment and repurposing of brewing byproducts. She has also received multiple grants and has presented her work at multiple professional conferences. A native of Puerto Rico, Soto Perez helped coordinate a fundraising campaign to assist with recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria.
  • T. William Howard, a geology major and veteran, has participated in several research projects with different faculty. He is focused on joining the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency after graduation and putting his GIS skills to use.
  • Victoria Houston, a geology major and U.S. Army veteran, was very active as an undergraduate researcher with geology professor Leslie Sautter and traveled to Ireland to perform marine geology research with the Ireland Geology Survey in Galway last year. She was also a dedicated instructor’s assistant in several laboratory courses. Houston also plans to work at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
  • Tyler Tesch, a geology major, participated in the NASA Missions courses with professors Cass Runyon and Jon Hakkila. He is an active member of the National Guard.
  • Caroline Gilmer, a biology major and double minor in chemistry and environmental and sustainable studies, has tailored her studies to craft brewing and food science. She will continue to work at restaurant and bar Closed for Business following graduation while also developing a fermentation program at an alehouse in North Charleston.
  • Alyssa Johnson, a chemistry major and Goldwater Scholarship recipient, has done several research projects with chemistry professor Richard Lavrich, including a research project that was published in the Journal of Molecular Spectroscopy. In the summer of 2017, she was selected in a national competition to be part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program, a highly selective research program that places underrepresented and/or first generation college students in prestigious labs throughout the country. Through that program, Johnson worked under a professor at Stanford University for 10 weeks. She will pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry at Emory University.
  • Dave Austin, a physics major with a computational neuroscience concentration, has focused his interdisciplinary research at the crossing between physics, biology, math and computer modeling. He studied the complex and apparently random firing activity in networks of neurons and discovered the hidden patterns of stable activity. Austin found a mathematical model that can predict the stable patterns of activity in a neural network based on single-cell measurements. His immediate plans are to work in the biomedical field, with a long-term goal of earning a Ph.D.
  • Jordan Carter, a biology major and Honors College student, founded the William Aiken Fellows Society Executive Council, he has been a peer facilitator and an office intern on campus. Part of the Medical Humanities and Discovery Science Mentoring Cohort in Honors, Carter has been conducting research since the summer of his freshman year, including research at the Medical University of South Carolina. He will matriculate in the matriculating in the MD/PhD program at MUSC in the fall.
  • Pat Balmediano, a biology major and Honors College student, has done research for the Medical University of South Carolina in drug discovery. Balmediano also conducted summer research in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University. Part of the Medical Humanities and Discovery Science Mentoring Cohort in Honors, the William Aiken Fellow and Colonial Scholar, will attend UNC Chapel Hill this fall in a Ph.D. nutrition program.
  • Alexandra Schwartz, a biochemistry major and Honors College student, has been conducting research since her freshman year, first in neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina, a summer at the University of Pennsylvania neuropathology department and then in the College’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Schwartz, who worked on campus as a peer counselor, is founder and co-president of Active Minds CofC chapter. A recipient of numerous scholarships, including the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, will attend a Ph.D. program in quantitative and chemical biology at Vanderbilt University this fall.