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Student group donates idle computer time to facilitate global research

Published: Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 12:04

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Danai Macridi / Tufts Daily

Freshman Brian Pilchik is leading an initiative encouraging students to download a program that donates their laptops’ idle time to calculations which benefit cancer research.

A group of students has put their computers' idle time to work curing cancer and saving the environment.

Students that join the initiative started last month by freshman Brian Pilchik can download a program that allows scientists to remotely harness energy from their computers and use it to power computations for research in a wide variety of fields.

While the idle time can benefit scientists doing research in anything from possible cures for muscular dystrophy to finding new sources of clean energy, Pilchik is aiming his effort, called "Tufts 4 the Cure," specifically at laboratory research to cure cancer.

"We are using cancer specifically to advertise it, but it does a lot of research on different topics," Pilchik said.

The software, Berkley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), supports a worldwide grid that connects any computer running the program to a database of scientific research.

BOINC, developed six years ago at the University of California at Berkeley, allows personal computers to receive data associated with a research project indicated by the user's choice.

The computers, once joined to a global network, process the data, completing calculations that simulate processes like protein folding or chemical reactions. Once the calculations are complete, the computer sends the solutions back to the labs from where they originated. The program saves the researchers time and allows them to complete their research faster.

According to Pilchik, members of the Tufts community using the program have collectively provided the processing time to save researchers across the world nearly eight years of work. Roughly 60 students are currently running the program on their computers, he said.

Pilchik added that he was involved in encouraging his peers to use the program before coming to Tufts.

"I started using it myself back in high school," he said. "I thought it was a pretty cool thing, and I tried to get my friends to use it."

Any computer that has downloaded BOINC software automatically runs the program once it is idle, according to Pilchik.

Pilchik said Tufts was an ideal setting to promote the use of the technology to effect change.

"When I came here [to Tufts], I thought it would be cool to spread it," he said. "I guess I figured that since we have a community of young people here who are interested in technology that could help make a difference in the world, a college campus would be the perfect place to promote interest. We're all about community action and social change, and we can make a difference using this program."

Freshman Melissa MacEwen, who has been using the program since last month, said she was inspired by the impact her computer could have when connected to the network.

"I think it's really great and it's a creative way to address relevant and pressing scientific needs," she said.

Freshmen Sydney Post and MayaBea Schechner have both been donating their laptops' idle time to the network after Pilchick told them about the program.

"I think that it's a really cool idea that you can use your computer to help process bits of research," Post said.

Schechner agreed, adding that she checks her statistics and totals on the website from time to time.

"I'm always impressed by how much run−time I've accumulated, or how many different projects I've been a part of," she said.

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