Bitcoin mining is popular within its own circle of tech lovers, but more recently, medical researchers at StanfordUniversity are applying the massive group-work process into their research projects, and have their sights set on attaining much more than currency.
Stanford started a computing project completely focused on protein folding called Folding@home. They will provide a free software program to individuals or teams with a goal of producing enough folding simulations to aid their researchers in helpful research for various cancers and diseases like Alzheimer’s, Brittle Bone Disease, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
Moore Norman Technology Center's Networking & Computer Repair Instructor Tommy Hamilton learned of the Folding@home project while searching for a class project that his high school and adult students could work on to learn about both networking issues, but social issues, as well. It was also a project he felt strongly about as his grandmother has Alzheimer’s.
“There aren’t many people who haven’t been touched by Alzheimer’s or other illnesses. I thought, what a worthwhile project for us to do.
“All of my students got behind it quickly, which is really cool,” Hamilton said.
The research focuses on proteins because they are responsible for helping a body break down nutrition into energy and they also help a body battle against disease. Folding is the process that proteins go through in preparation to perform their work. Typically this happens in a seamless, healthy way; however, when proteins misfold, the chances rise for the development of disease and cancers.
The research provided through the Folding@home project allows researchers to evaluate the misfolding occurrences and work toward developing solutions through medications and – ultimately – finding cures.
Hamilton said they have 147 processing cores being used for folding research between MNTC’s Networking classrooms and labs. At anytime they can switch the computers to perform research on one of five separate diseases. The program runs in the background of each system and does not impact the flow of learning for any of his students.
There is also friendly competition among the teams and individuals comprising the 176,839 computers running the project, all in order to earn ranking as top folders. Currently, MNTC is one of the top 500 folding teams out of almost 123,000 from all over the world and they compete against names like Apple, Inc., Hewlett Packard, Google and major universities.
Adult student Nathaniel Cheatle graduates from the Networking class this spring. He has worked as a team leader for MNTC’s Folding@home project and has overseen tasks such as making sure all of the set-up and testing of the folding programs worked well enough to load it on all the classroom and lab systems. Then he worked to have all the cables, routers, switches and servers working properly to produce the results they want to help Stanford with their project.
“I’ve learned about leadership and the project has many implications in the IT world. We have to set up switches, we have to set-up routers, we have to set-up clients and it translates really well into our careers,” said Cheatle.
He also noted that he’s progressed in his communication skills with his peers, which is a skill he’ll use every day in the workforce.
Hamilton said as an instructor, his job is not just to prepare students to join the workforce with the technical skill-set to move ahead, but to also prepare them to become involved on a bigger scale within their communities and the world around them.
“In addition to the curriculum, we teach our students the importance of developing interpersonal and social skills. We know that almost every corporation has that benevolent giving branch and so a project like this is just another facet of what we do: we produce well-rounded students prepared to go out into the community and be a success,” Hamilton said.
“We want to give back as much as we can because we’ve really been blessed with what we’re given here. Although we can’t give money, we can certainly give computer time that is so desperately needed by Stanford,” said Hamilton.
by Anna Aguilar, APR