UC Students Use Computers to Simulate Eye Development

By:    Brandon Pytel
Date: May 24, 2018

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

close up of fruit fly eye and computer simulation of eye

The team of UC 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 diseases, shed light on mutations and help us better understand the human body. Four computer science students at the University of Cincinnati (UC) spent the last year trying to understand the development of one of the trickiest parts of the body: the eye.

The students launched this project through their senior design capstone class, a required course for all College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) 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.”

Because of fruit flies’ quick life cycles, as well as the availability of sophisticated genetic tools, scientists commonly study mutations and eye development in fruit flies. But using exclusively fruit flies can be limiting. A computer model to simulate eye development can be a powerful tool to guide future research, said Lavin.

Lavin and his teammates worked with Fred Annexstein, PhD, in computer science and Elke Buschbeck, PhD, 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,” said Lavin.

The team used particle-based physics to model cellular interaction, simulating the biological processes for how these 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.

two students stand in front of computers and poster.

UC computer science students Brian Bauer (left) and Ryan Lavin (right) present their eye development model at the College of Engineering and Applied Science Senior Design showcase.

By the end of the spring semester, the team had successfully created a fully functioning 2-dimensional simulation. This 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 allows users to test how small biological and environmental changes can affect eye development in multiple species.

Since the four students all have computer science backgrounds, one of the biggest challenges was creating a computer simulation that could be easily understood, and even modified, by non-computer scientists (like neurobiologists and medical professionals).

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 3-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.

screenshot of computer program showing eye development simulation.

The computer program the students designed shows the process of cells forming to create eye tissue.