Medicine

Collective power

Though legally blind, Greg Bowman, PhD, can see with his peripheral vision and is able to read computer screens at high magnification. “One of the things that draws me to studying protein dynamics is that it’s something nobody can see,” said Greg Bowman, PhD, “so in some ways the playing field is a little leveled for me.” (Photo: Matt Miller)

When Greg Bowman was in second grade, he began to have trouble reading the board in his classroom. Playing goalie for his soccer team also became difficult. Over the following year, he lost most of his central vision due to an inherited genetic disorder, a form of juvenile macular degeneration.

“It gradually dawned on me that this would have a severe impact on my future life, with where I should live and work,” Bowman said. “But in retrospect, my parents handled it extremely well. I never felt like damaged goods or like I shouldn’t push myself to achieve as much as I could.”

Passionate about science, Bowman realized that experimental biology is not very accessible to those who are visually impaired. “Essentially, I see at low resolution, mostly with my peripheral vision,” he said. “I can navigate hallways and laboratories, but I can’t read the small dial on a pipette.”

So, Bowman found another route into the field: Computer science could be applied to biological problems and, with computers, he could zoom in to 16 times magnification.

Bowman, PhD, now an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the School of Medicine, is legally blind; he leads one of the largest crowdsourced computational biology projects in the world.

The effort is aimed at understanding how proteins — the raw materials that make up our bodies — fold into their proper shapes to keep our bodies running properly. Proteins are vital cellular machinery, and understanding how they assemble and function — or malfunction — could shed light on many of the most vexing problems in medical science.

The project is called Folding@home. It relies on the power of tens of thousands of home computers to perform the complex calculations required to simulate protein dynamics. Volunteers from all over the world install a program that runs those calculations when a computer otherwise would sit idle. Often motivated by personal interest, the participants get to select their area of contribution, whether it’s boosting cancer understanding, preventing Alzheimer’s disease or fighting antibiotic resistance, among others.

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