Student Spotlight: TVHS Junior helps Stanford University with research

For the past three years, Tech Valley High School Junior, Max Lockett, has been helping Stanford University fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis. In this month’s Student Spotlight, we sit down with Max and discuss how, from his home in Berlin, New York, he’s helping scientists from across the globe fight protein folding diseases.

What is Folding@Home?
Max: Folding@Home is a distributed computing project focused on disease research that simulates protein folding and computational drug design. It harnesses the power of thousands of computers whose power is donated by volunteers around the world who have installed the software on their machines. The program has been active for over 16 years, and the results have been published in over 139 scientific journals during that timeframe. The FAH network currently sports a combined total power of over 100 petaFLOPS, making it one of the world’s fastest computing systems and allowing it to complete simulations thousands of times more complex than previously achieved. The program currently supports research into Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s Diseases, as well as various infectious diseases including Ebola Virus and Zika Virus.

How did you first hear about this project and what made you want to get involved?
Max: I first heard about Folding@Home when doing research for an assignment in 8th grade. I don’t remember exactly what the assignment was about, but I eventually started reading about what everyday people can do to help address health problems that affect so many people. I’ve always been really interested in computers, so Folding@Home caught my eye because it allowed me to use my passion to help people. I remember the first time that I downloaded and installed the software, I thought it was so cool to see the progress that MY computer was making in helping to contribute to such an important cause.

How long have you been involved in Folding@Home?
Max: I first started to contribute to Folding@Home in 2014, and contributed off and on for a couple of years, mostly because of the huge amounts of heat that a computer running the software generates due to the processing load. However, during my sophomore year I was given the opportunity to expand my involvement through an advocacy project for health class. I was able to borrow a number of laptops from TVHS, for which I configured a custom Linux-based operating system to optimize the performance of the machines. These machines have been running for almost a year now, and I have currently been working further with TVHS to increase the number of computers that I have enrolled in the project. I plan to continue operating and expanding my network of computers running FAH into the foreseeable future.

Was it difficult to get started in the Folding@Home project? What did you have to do to get setup? 
Max: It was fairly easy to get involved with Folding@Home. I simply had to install a piece of software and allow it to run. In fact, I was even able to continue to use my computer normally, while the software was running. It was only when I began to delve further into the project that I really had to do a more complex setup. Configuring my custom Linux system was definitely one of the more difficult tasks that I had to do to optimize the performance of the computers that I was using, as well as trying to network them together so they could all be managed and controlled from a single, central computer. However, once these tasks were completed, to set up new computers all that I really had to do was load my code onto the computers and occasionally make small changes to ensure compatibility and increase performance.

Right now, how many computers do you have helping Stanford University with their research?
Max: I currently have a total of seven computers contributing to Folding@Home. Of these seven, I have configured five of them to use a technology called GPGPU that uses the increased computing power of discreet graphics processing units to complete simulations many times more efficiently than a machine without this technology.

Why is this project important to you?
Max: I think that it is extremely important for everyone to find a way to advance our understanding and capacity to use new technologies, while also helping people around the world. This project allows me to do both, while also allowing me to advance my own interests.