Ph.D. student honored for technical contribution and impact

June 30, 2023

Evolutionary computation research earns national recognition

A fourth-year doctoral student in the Michigan State University College of Engineering has added another national honor to her growing list of accolades.

Katherine Skocelas
Katherine Skocelas

Katherine Skocelas received an honorable mention from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) for her project, The Evolution of Genetic Robustness for Cellular Cooperation in Early Multicellular Organisms. The NCWIT award recognizes technical contributions to projects that demonstrate a high level of innovation and potential impact.

Skocelas is pursuing a dual Ph.D. in computer science and ecology, evolution, and behavior. 

“I was surprised and excited when I found out that I received the NCWIT honorable mention,” Skocelas said. “Awards like this encourage women to continue pursuing a computer science degree. They also draw attention to the work being done by women in computer science and foster a sense of community and belonging in the field.”

Skocelas believes her work with multicellular organisms has expanded the understanding of their evolutionary biology.

“The dynamics we observed help explain the initial bootstrap as multicellular organisms first evolved to be large enough for developmental processes to become beneficial. This gives us insights on how to evolve larger and more complex artificial organisms,” she explained.

“Because our study was conducted in silico, the findings are not inherently unique to life on earth, but universal to the evolutionary process,” she said. “This means that they show how multicellularity could evolve on other planets, helping researchers know what to look for.”

Skocelas, who received a bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations and a master’s degree in computer information systems from Grand Valley State University, began her interest in evolutionary dynamics while working on her master’s.

“I conducted evolutionary computation research during my master’s,” she recalled. “When I began my Ph.D. at MSU, my adviser, Professor Charles Ofria, encouraged me to start my research here working on understanding the evolutionary dynamics that underpin the major evolutionary transition to multicellularity.”

Her interest in this field was bolstered by her participation in the Digital Evolution Lab (DEVOLAB), where she worked for two years as an undergraduate research supervisor. 

“Working with the Digital Evolution Lab has been the best part of my MSU experience,” she said. “Many of my lab-mates collaborated with me on the project that I submitted for the NCWIT Collegiate Award, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”

In addition to her NCWIT recognition, Skocelas was awarded a three-year National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship in 2020 and an MSU University Enrichment Fellowship in 2019. Her most current honor earned her a trophy, $2,500 cash award, admission to the annual NCWIT Summit on Women and IT, and a funded trip to Colorado for the awards ceremony later in the summer.

She plans on completing her Ph.D. in 2024. “I hope to work as a computer science researcher for a federal research lab after graduation,” she added.

Written by Lia Bergin, student writer in MSU Engineering Marketing and Communications.