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UC Students Use Computers to Simulate Eye Development

Computer science students used their senior design capstone project to simulate eye development in multiple species, helping us better understand this complicated organ.

Date: 5/29/2018 12:00:00 PM
By: Brandon Pytel
Phone: (513) 556-4686

UC ingot  
a computer simulation model of a fruit fly's eye alongside a photograph of a fruit fly's eye.
The team of University of Cincinnati computer science students used computer models to simulate eye development in multiple species.

Imagine using computers to see how body parts develop. Sound a little like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster? Not quite. Using computer simulations to track the development of body parts can prevent disease, shed light on mutations and help us better understand the human body. Four computer science students at the University of Cincinnati spent the past year trying to understand the development of one of the trickiest parts of the body: the eye.

Students launched this project through their senior design capstone class, a required course for all UC College of Engineering and Applied Science students. 

“The underlying biological processes and patterns of early eye development are known for fruit flies and a few other species,” said Ryan Lavin, one of the students on the project. “However, a comprehensive model for arthropod eyes has not been built.”

Scientists typically use fruit flies for these studies because of their short lifespans and the sophisticated genetic maps and models of the species. But using fruit flies exclusively can be limiting. A computer model to simulate eye development can be a powerful tool to guide future research, Lavin said.

Lavin and his teammates worked with UC professors Fred Annexstein, in computer science, and Elke Buschbeck, in neurobiology, to test for a unifying eye development model that can be applied to multiple species’ eyes.

“This seemed like a real chance to reach across disciplines and apply what I learned in UC’s classrooms to a real, meaningful problem,” Lavin said.

The team used particle-based physics to model cellular interaction, simulating the biological processes for how cells form to create an eye. The students applied their knowledge of computer science to program their simulation, using Python and OpenGL to run simulation logic and draw results on screen.

By the end of the spring semester, the team had successfully created a fully functioning two-dimensional simulation. The simulation lets users easily change a value – for example, how far apart photoreceptor cells are from each other – to mimic radically different eye types. This lets users test how small biological and environmental changes can affect eye development in multiple species.

Since the four students each has a background in computer science, one of the biggest challenges was creating a computer simulation that could be easily understood, and even modified, by people in unrelated fields such as medical professionals or neurobiologists.

One of the highlights for Lavin was working with his teammates on the project: “Working with passionate, dedicated people to make something like this is my favorite part of software development.”

Though the semester has concluded, Lavin plans to stay on the project and continue to improve it. He hopes to add new specialization rules for more eye types and eventually get a three-dimensional model completed, which will allow more variations and options within simulations. With commitment from students like Lavin and his teammates, UC continues to have its eye on the future.

The Eye Development capstone team consisted of the following students: Brian Bauer, Joe DiSalvo, Ryan Lavin and Nick Moseley.