When Matthew Blumberg reflects on who inspired him as a child, he names Captain Kirk, the fearless leader and computer programmer of Star Trek. Perhaps most importantly, he thinks of his own father, who loved to learn and believed that there was a solution to every problem. Following their examples, Blumberg is working to impact the world by using computer science to help answer pressing questions. He is the founder of GridRepublic, a nonprofit organization that allows people to volunteer their computers’ idle computing power to support research in various fields.
As an undergraduate at Yale, Blumberg majored in anthropology, focusing his studies mainly on the social sciences and humanities. Blumberg’s study of anthropology helped him understand how communities can work together for a common cause — an awareness that he would bring to his work with GridRepublic. “Through design choices, you can construct a community to have defining characteristics,” he said. At Yale, Blumberg developed a fascination for computer science when he took a course on artificial intelligence. “It was a combination of philosophy and computer science,” he said. “I was intrigued by the question: What is intelligence, and how do you program a computer to do intelligent tasks?”
A few years later, Blumberg developed an additional interest in research on experimental pharmacology and drug discovery. “My father became ill and was on experimental medication,” Blumberg said. “I wanted to help with the drug discovery process, and one way, I thought, was through computational studies.” He knew that computer programs could be used to simulate structural models of proteins within biological systems. With enough power at their disposal, computers could use this technology to help answer critical questions in medical research.
Currently, Blumberg is helping to make this computer-based research possible as executive director of his own nonprofit organization. Through GridRepublic, volunteers donate their computers’ unused processing power to support research on multiple causes, including cancer, malaria, and Alzheimer’s disease. A volunteer can create an account on GridRepublic’s website and choose which causes he would like to support, ranging from climate change to advancements in effective drug delivery. Then, he can download a simple app onto his computer that operates like a screensaver running in the background. This app, based on the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, uses the computer’s idle cycles for scientific computing.
Volunteer computing has had a significant impact, which becomes especially evident through an example. It has been the force behind recent advances in a pro-drug activator gene therapy called Toca 511, used to treat glioblastoma brain tumors. The design of the drug was made possible by one of the projects supported by GridRepublic, called Rosetta@home. This program determines the 3-dimensional structures of proteins, and it uses these structures to provide insight for therapeutic applications. Toca 511 is composed of a retroviral replicating vector containing a gene that encodes an enzyme called cytosine deaminase. This enzyme is injected into brain tumor cells, where it interferes with DNA replication in order to kill cancer cells. This therapy is now in clinical trials, bringing hope to patients with brain cancer.
GridRepublic has won a variety of awards: It was a finalist at the SXSW Interactive Festival, the Stockholm Challenge, and the Facebook Studio Awards. But for Blumberg, the most rewarding aspect of his job has been the chance to work with people who are using their different interests and backgrounds to contribute to science in their own ways. “Computer science is an area that can bring researchers together, forming academic communities,” Blumberg said. He hopes that his work with computers will continue to contribute to the research community by making new discoveries possible and by helping to develop medicines for people in need.
When asked about advice for students interested in computing and science, Blumberg emphasized the need to get as broad of an education as possible, and not to overly focus on one subject. “Learn to synthesize information and explore new emerging and astonishing fields, such as genetics and biotechnology, in addition to computer science,” he said. Blumberg has certainly done so, using his talents and interests to inspire others and make a profound impact on scientific research today.
Cover Image: Rosetta@home is just one of the many projects that uses volunteer computing from GridRepublic to power research on the 3-dimensional structure of proteins. It was recently used to design proteins in gene therapy to treat brain cancer. Image courtesy of Rosetta@home.