Mikayla Chang ’20’s Eye-Opening Senior Thesis

By Katie Clelland ’21

Prior to obtaining an unexpected research opportunity with Associate Professor of Biology Lars Schmitz, Mikayla Chang ’20 had never truly considered the human eyeball. But that’s all it took for her eyes to open to the complexities and wonder of this sensory phenomenon.

Fast forward one year, and Chang has completed her senior thesis, “Exploring the Tempo of Eye Evolution through a Web Interface Application.” Under Schmitz’ guidance, Chang and her research partner developed an app that models eye evolution, writing original code using mathematical equations and programming skills. The final web interface app enables users to explore the acclaimed Nilsson and Pelger model, which estimates the number of generations it took for a complex camera-type eye to evolve from a patch of light-sensitive cells.

“The hope is that this application will be used for science education and outreach activities, such as serving as a learning device that students could use in the classroom to study evolution,” explains Chang. “Such apps are useful because they interactively and visually demonstrate the evolutionary factors that affect model outcomes in a much more accessible way,” she explains.

This past January, Chang had the opportunity to present her thesis at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SCIB) conference, one of the largest and most prestigious professional associations of its kind, whose mission is to further research, education, and public awareness in the areas of organismal, functional, and evolutionary biology.

“Seeing the research world was priceless. To present my research, among other undergraduates, PhD students, and even postdocs, was an amazing opportunity. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me develop the skills to present research to a wide range of audiences,” says Chang.

As a computational neuroscience major with a minor in dance, Chang hopes to pursue a career in neuroscience or technology. “The combination of being a STEM major and a performing arts minor is amazing because it provides an academic balance and allows me to study two very different things that can actually be very related to each other at times! It is great that an interdisciplinary school, like Scripps, allows me to learn so much about both subjects,” says Chang.

As Chang prepares to graduate this May, she describes her close relationships with her professors, who gave her innumerable opportunities to grow and learn.

She adds, “I am sad to leave, but I am grateful for the time I had at Scripps. For me, one of the most valuable parts of college was the friendships I made, along with the collaborative and supportive learning environment.”