One thing that we all have in common is a fervent desire to help build a better world for ourselves and our children, one that’s free of war, pollution and major diseases. In the case of diseases, if we possess the necessary education and talent, then we can become scientists or medical researchers and contribute directly to finding cures. If we don’t, then we can still do something useful by making a financial contribution to any number of charities. Even if we don’t have the right skill set or any disposable income, we can still make a difference by becoming a blood donor or by registering for an organ donation programme.
A generation ago, charity was often a private matter, or was limited to sponsoring a Run for the Cure or other similar events. While social media has been remarkable in raising the public’s awareness of various causes – for example, the pink ribbon campaign, Movember and the ice bucket challenge – not everything it’s spawned has been useful.
Social media is largely responsible for a new phenomenon known as armchair activism, or slacktivism – a token “feel good” gesture (usually related to a particular charity or cause) that requires minimal effort (such as clicking a mouse or forwarding an e-mail), and has so practical or substantive value.
- Women used to post a somewhat cheeky status on their Facebook wall, identifying the colour of the underwear they were wearing. This was supposed to the public’s awareness of breast cancer, but in practical, measurable terms, it did absolutely nothing.
- More recently, people have been posting comic book characters to their Facebook wall in order to raise awareness of childhood cancer, and then assigning a different character to each friend to “likes” their post. I’m sure that some of them might even be giving themselves a pat on the back, believing that they’ve actually accomplished something.
- Every now and then. I’ll see Facebook posts similar to the following (below). While those who post them may be well-intentioned, and share our collective desire for a better planet, it is still a colossal waste of time, effort and bandwidth.
I’d like to share with you, an entirely new way of giving. No financial contribution is required, but unlike armchair activism, this activity actually accomplishes something. With a surprisingly small amount of effort, you can make a tangible contribution to medical science by helping researchers find cures for diseases more quickly.
Stanford University is working with medical researchers across the United States and has developed a global distributed-computing project called Folding@Home. This is a large-scale computational biology initiative that simulates protein folding on a computer.
Proteins are surprisingly versatile and can perform a lot of different roles within our bodies: they can regulate cells, act as enzymes, or function as antibodies. However, before they can do any of these things, proteins must first fold into the proper three-dimensional structure. This is usually done automatically, and the specific shape will depend on its particular sequence of amino acids. Sometimes, proteins can fold in undesired ways, and this misfolding can be a cause of a number of serious diseases. Simulating protein folding on a computer can help researchers understand under what conditions a protein misfolds and (ideally) what can be done to prevent this from happening.
The computing power required to simulate protein folding is prodigious, and is far, far beyond what is available to any university. Stanford University is assisting in this effort with their Folding@Home initiative. They are breaking down the work into millions of bite-size pieces, called work units, and inviting anyone who owns a computer to join the project. Those who sign up will use their computer to process some of these work units, and in return, act a catalyst in this massive protein folding initiative. This video explains, in a simplified way, Stanford’s Folding@Home distributed computing project.
If your interest is piqued and you’d now like to learn more about proteins, the protein folding process, molecular dynamics or the Folding@Home project itself, then visit Stanford’s The Science page.
How To Participate
Go to Stanford’s Folding@Home web page, read the project overview, watch the video again if you like, and then click on the download button. After installing the folding program, it will download a work unit from Stanford, and your computer will begin processing it as a background task. A work unit will take between four hours and two days to process, depending on the size of the unit and the speed of your computer’s CPU. When the processing is complete, the results will be sent to Stanford automatically, a new work unit will be downloaded, and that first work unit will be credited to your account.
If you like, you can choose to use your computer’s processing power to help find a cure for a specific disease – Alzheimer’s, Cancer, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s – or you can simply select “Any Disease” from the configuration menu. As the work unit is being processed, you can enable the animated screen saver and view the protein that your computer is currently working on. Here is a sample image:
As you can see, there is a world map behind the protein. Each white pixel on the map represents a computer that is processing a work unit at this moment. As of this writing, there are 164,101 active CPUs in this project.
Stanford’s Folding@Home project is completely voluntary. You won’t get paid for your participation, but you will experience that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with the knowledge that you will soon make a difference in the lives of those suffering from cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. I’ve been a participant for a number of months now, and so far I’ve completed 350 work units:
If any of you would like to start a friendly competition, and post regular progress updates, just let me know. Although I do have a bit of a head start, my desktop computer is six years old, and its processor (by today’s standards) is not particularly powerful. Anyone with a fairly new computer should be able to catch up to me, and those of you who have a high-end gaming PC (with a decent video card) should breeze past me in almost no time! You can also run the protein folding program on multiple computers and have them each registered to the same account, in order to accumulate work unit credits even faster! If you’d like to keep tabs on my progress, my account name is BobYewchuk.
Join me, and let’s make a tangible and measurable contribution to medical research together. Believe me, this will be immensely more gratifying than any form of armchair activism!