Not all scientific research takes place in a lab. Nor are all the people running the tests and crunching the numbers microbiologists or infectious disease specialists.
As the fight to permanently take down the COVID-19 virus rages on, a group of Local 600 digital imaging technicians (DITs) have answered the call by offering up something just as valuable: their idled hardware.
“We build these super high-powered computers for on-set use that aren’t doing anything right now,” said Jamie Metzger, a DIT and a union member since 2010. “We just put them to work.”
In mid-March, fellow DIT Andy Bethke saw a post seeking individuals and organizations willing to donate computer processing power to the Rosetta@home project. Researchers at the University of Washington are mapping and modeling the coronavirus protein – an ongoing process that will take hundreds of thousands of hours. The scientists put out the call for computer muscle via the science-at-home website Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) that allows people to use their computers to help conduct scientific research on a number of projects.
Many industry DITs had recently taken delivery of the newly-released Mac Pro just as the film and TV industry was shutting down. Here was an opportunity to get them running.
“When I saw the post, I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got this really powerful computer that’s going to be sitting idle for an undetermined amount of time. Let’s put it to use to help for the greater good,” said Bethke, a union member for the past decade.
Rallied through the Facebook group DIT-WIT that Metzger has operated for the last eight years, a community of 58 DITs has formed a Rosetta@home team. Even with countless computers chipping in world-wide, the small-but-mighty Team DIT-WIT and their muscular machines are now the 29th largest group, placing them in the top 1 percent of Rosetta@home groups.
“The #1 team is in China and they have something like 150,000 members so we’re never going to catch up to them,” said Metzger. “But it’s beautiful the way they have incentivized it and you can see yourself moving up the rankings.” However, he added, “No one is doing this to get a pat on the shoulder.”
Maybe not, but the Institute for Protein Design at UW gave the Rosetta effort a lot of credit: “We are happy to report that the Rosetta molecular modeling suite was recently used to accurately predict the atomic-scale structure of an important coronavirus protein weeks before it could be measured in the lab. Knowledge gained from studying this viral protein is now being used to guide the design of novel vaccines and antiviral drugs.”
The Rosetta@home effort doesn’t take much effort from participants — download the software and set yourself up as a user. The program runs in the background and can ratchet up or down if a user needs to use the computer for other work. Metzger checks his computers running Rosetta a couple of times a week to make sure nothing has crashed, but no other monitoring is necessary. The only outlay is power.
Metzger, a native of Long Island, began his career as a camera assistant before transitioning to DIT work. A recently elected member of the Local 600 National Executive Board (NEB), he serves on the Local 600 Training Committee.
Bethke came to Los Angeles from his native Minnesota. He worked at Photo-Sonics in Burbank and became one of the first Phantom techs in Los Angeles, working with that camera for nearly a decade before diversifying into DIT work.
Both members are delighted to lend their computer power to contribute to the greater good.
“We all feel we want to help. Everybody wants to be doing something, Bethke said. “That’s the way I live my life. If I have something to share, I want to be sharing it. This is something small that doesn’t take a lot of involvement from me personally, but I can contribute.”
“We all know it’s the right thing to do,” added Metzger. “We’re throwing resources at solving a really big problem.”