Modern research endeavors rely on the power of computers to perform complicated analyses, and drug discovery projects are especially computation intensive. Although most researchers have access to powerful computers, getting time on them is difficult (it’s pretty much guaranteed that any researcher will have to compete with physical chemists, climatologists, astronomers, and a host of other scientists for these machines). Fortunately, minds smarter than I have come up with an interesting solution to this problem that relies on one simple observation: the computer that you’re using to read this article is actually a pretty powerful machine, and most of the time you don’t use it to it’s full capacity (especially when it’s sitting idle on your desk…). Your computer can then be linked to a series of other computers and used to help work out complex calculations in its spare time.
Distributed computing may seem like nothing more than a nice addition to more traditional research methods, but a project looking for novel treatments for neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer, found that using this distributed grid would cut the time required to finish the calculations from a staggering 8,000 years down to 1-2 years.
One of the most appealing aspects of the World Community Grid is that it allows you to choose the projects to which you’d like to donate your computer’s spare time. Most of them have a fairly direct relation to public health. New treatments for dengue fever are obvious, as are projects looking to improve access to clean water, but a project studying novel ways to predict African climate may seem like it’s not the highest priority at first. However, weather affects mosquito ranges (and thereby the future spread of certain diseases) and which land will become non arable in the future – and food security is a major issue in public health.
The grid keeps detailed statistics for the projects you’ve participated in, and allows you to join “teams” that pool all it’s members together to earn points (you can’t do much with them but competition makes things more fun). You can join the UMich ESO team by clicking here (those from other departments/institutions are also welcome, but should you feel so inclined you could start your own team and challenges may ensue…).
Best of all, it’s a way to help advance science in your spare time – without having learn any of the detailed biology or math.