July 03, 2012

Competing for a Cause

In an off-campus Mission Hill apartment, two Wentworth students share six computers and a monthly electricity bill of $160—that’s five times more expensive than the upstairs neighbors pay for electricity.

The culprit? Overclocking—the process of making your computer run even faster than the manufacturer said it could. To do so requires technical flair, a willingness to take apart and rebuild computers, and the know-how to tweak the settings of internal graphic cards, CPUs, motherboards, and RAM, to handle more electricity and output more power.

But computer engineering student Kevin Binder and computer networking student Andrew Garafalo aren’t just after speed for speed’s sake. The two are participating in a global research project spearheaded by Stanford University scientists. The project, Folding@home, relies on the pooled computing resources of individual computers to study Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases and many cancers.

Folding@home began more than a decade ago after researchers at Stanford recognized that in order to carry out their intricate research on molecules to study disease origins they would need one of two things: either several billion dollars to build a supercomputer or the borrowed power of tens of thousands of computers.

Specifically, the scientists needed a very fast computer to simulate how a protein—the body’s building block—arranges itself, or folds. This knowledge will also allow researchers to better understand protein misfolding—the cause of these well-known diseases—and help them design new drugs and therapies. Today Folding@home is the world’s largest distributed supercomputer.

For Binder, there is also a competitive aspect to Folding@home. People who fold generally join a team, and he and Garafalo belong to the team that ranks first in the country for personal computing power donated to the project, according to Folding@home. Within the team, Binder’s processor and how much it contributes to Folding@home is ranked No. 1,032, while his roommate, Garafalo, is No. 210.

Still, the larger impact of Binder’s donated computing power doesn’t escape him. For Binder, running the Folding@home software and contributing to the folding project in real time is the equivalent of donating money to charity each month. “We feel like we’re getting more done doing that than just handing someone [money],” Binder said. “This is actual work that is already done.”

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