The Personal Touch

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The Personal Touch

Postby Alan C. Lawhon » Sat Dec 29, 2012 3:27 am

Recruiting and bringing in new donors involves the personal touch. Like a politician asking a constituent for their vote, this is very much a one-on-one thing - you have to look a person in the eye and connect with them on a "human" level. When people perceive that you are personally committed, (when they can see and sense your passion), they are more likely to take you seriously. With that thought in mind, I have sent the following email message to Debbie, one of my foster sisters. (My foster brothers and foster sisters are spread out all over the country, so this is the most effective way to reach them.)

Subject: Invitation


I would like to invite you and David to join me as a “medical researcher” in association with Stanford Medical School’s “Folding@Home” distributed computing project. Here is a really neat flash video which will give you an idea of what the Stanford team is doing and how you (and your home computer) can help.

Here’s the link to the Stanford FAH web site: There are also articles about protein folding and Stanford’s Folding@Home distributed computing project – the largest distributed computing project in the world – on Wikipedia.

I have been “folding” continuously (24/7) since December 11th on my desktop computer. (It’s easy and painless!) This is something we can all do to (hopefully) help Cherie. The Folding@Home project has been ongoing since October 1, 2000 when they went online and folded their very first protein molecule. Despite initial misgivings by many prominent bio-molecular scientists, (who thought what Dr. Pande and his team were attempting was “impossible”), the FAH team (and all of their donor participants) have produced much good science. Over 100 peer reviewed papers have been published with pharmaceutical companies using the results of their simulations to develop new drugs. (Just in the past year a breakthrough involving simulation of a protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease has led directly to pharmaceutical companies developing a new drug to treat Alzheimer’s. That drug is currently in development.) The FAH team (including all of us donor participants) are producing good science – progress is definitely being made.

On the Stanford FAH web site, Dr. Pande has stated that his team envisions folding projects (simulations) they would like to undertake on the larger and more complex proteins which will require a substantial increase in computing power. That means they need more donors - and more donated CPU cycles. (One of these “larger proteins” they want to simulate is Alpha synuclein – a protein which Parkinson’s researchers strongly suspect as a factor in the development of Parkinson’s disease.) Alpha synuclien is also one of the most complex known proteins – it will require a substantial amount of [additional] computing power to simulate and fold this molecule.

Watch the video, go to Stanford’s web site, download the software and start crunching work units! (I have already “crunched” (and returned) over 140 completed WUs.) Also, please forward this to Avy & Gabby, Bartie & Bob, Fawn & Barry as well as Elisa up there in Virginia. (We might as well make this a family affair!) Also, please forward this on to all your friends and acquaintances. Every unused CPU cycle that goes to folding brings us one step closer to conquering these diseases.



I have a feeling those 100,000 new donors Dr. Pande needs is fixing to be reduced by twenty to fifty new donors. All of my brothers and sisters have college age children - and they all have friends. Any of you reading this who think my "invitation" might be helpful, feel free to copy (and modify) it and send it along - as an invitation - to your friends. Business cards and famous celebrities are all good ideas. When they are combined with "the personal touch," you're much more likely to attract new donors.
Alan C. Lawhon
Posts: 97
Joined: Thu Dec 20, 2012 4:58 am

Re: The Personal Touch

Postby Alan C. Lawhon » Mon Dec 31, 2012 12:17 pm

Translating Complex Science Into Layman’s Terms

I suppose the following might make Dr. Pande and Dr. Bowman cringe, but I (as a non-scientist) have run into an interesting problem as I attempt to persuade potential new folders to join FAH and donate their computing cycles. Namely, the “problem” is: How do you explain (in lay terms) what protein folding is, why it is important to understand protein folding, and how their contribution to the project can help? Stated another way, how do you explain this without going into so much detail that a potential donor’s eyes glaze over? How do you explain this in such a way that you pique a person’s interest so that they’re motivated to download the software and begin crunching work units? I’ve been thinking about this and trying out some “experimental techniques” which I would like to share. (I’m a bit of a “scientist” myself – Ha! Ha!)

I’m cognizant of the fact that many people have short attention spans. If you don’t say something that makes sense to them – in fairly short order – they’re likely to quickly lose interest and dismiss you. When that happens, you’ve lost a potential donor. So, to avoid this calamity, you have to “make contact” and connect fairly quickly. (Getting bogged down in a description of polypeptide chains and energy states isn’t going to work here.) With this thought in mind, I’ve developed a couple of verbal techniques which I use as conversation starters. When you’re meeting a total stranger for the very first time, (such as in a restaurant or while sitting at a table at your local Barnes & Noble bookstore), a ploy which I use is the “I’m a medical researcher” line. (This ploy tends to work especially well if you’re a man talking to a lady.)

You might ask the person sitting next to you what they’re reading? Then, when they ask what you’re reading, show them the book: “DNA: The Secret of Life” by James D. Watson. (I carry that book with me whenever I go out because it’s good reading, but also because it’s a good prop for my “I’m a medical researcher” line.) I have found that if I just happen to be talking with a lady, she’ll invariably ask me about my occupation – or a question along those lines. That’s when I tell my little “white lie” and say that I’m a medical researcher. If (when) you see the person you’re talking with react, then you know you’ve got their attention – and they’re interested. The next logical step, from there, is to ask the person you’re talking with if they would like to be a medical researcher? They’ll probably respond with a bit of hesitation or uncertainty as in “Well, I don’t know … how much would this cost?” That’s OK since you’ve now got a conversation going.

If you choose to use this approach, it’s important that you quickly “fess up” and admit that you’re not a real medical researcher or an actual doctor, but you are using your computer to assist medical research – specifically in the area of protein folding dynamics. If you have carefully sized up your prospect as a reasonably intelligent person, (which most people are, especially in a place like a bookstore), he or she will naturally be curious about protein folding and protein folding dynamics. The way I explain this is that proteins are molecules in our cells that do very important work – such as regulating the manufacture of insulin in the pancreas and dopamine in the brain. Then I explain that proteins start off as chains (or strings) of amino acids – like strands of DNA – and proceed to fold (or “bend”) into a final three-dimensional shape. (I’ll twist my fingers and hands around each other as if to illustrate this “bending” process.) As long as proteins fold correctly and reach their final correct shape, all is well, but when a protein misfolds or doesn’t reach its final correct shape, then you can get serious diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease - and many forms of cancer. So I’m using my computer to help scientists model and simulate what is going on when a protein folds – and especially when a protein misfolds or doesn’t fold correctly. Researchers are interested in this since understanding how proteins fold (and misfold) will help pharmaceutical companies develop drugs to treat these diseases.

Having gotten this far, I ask the prospective donor if they would like to be involved in this research? If the person seems to show interest, I’ll continue by explaining that researchers at Stanford Medical School out in California have developed a means whereby hundreds of thousands of volunteers from all around the world can donate their computers – when they are not using them – as part of a very large network of computers that all work together to simulate a protein molecule as it folds. I’ll then draw an analogy to a jig saw picture puzzle that has a million pieces. No one person working alone can put together a picture puzzle with that many pieces – it would take too long. Simulating a protein molecule folding is similar to putting together a jig saw puzzle with a million pieces. To get the job done, you have to have more than one person working on the puzzle – actually you have to have thousands of people (or more accurately thousands of their computers) working to put this “puzzle” together. So that’s what the researchers at Stanford have figured out - how to take a big puzzle with lots of pieces and break it down into many small pieces that they send out to individual computers. Once these individual computers have “crunched” their part of the simulation, they send their completed results back to Stanford. The beautiful thing about this is that the entire process is automatic – you don’t have to do anything but let your computer crunch away while you soundly sleep or go to the grocery store or do whatever you like doing. Once you’ve downloaded the software, it runs pretty much by itself – it’s easy! (If the person you’re talking with asks: “Does this cost anything?” you can respond by saying “Yes, it costs about the same price as the electricity it takes to burn a 100-watt light bulb.” If they press you further, you can “guesstimate” that the electricity cost would be in the neighborhood of 25 to 35 cents a day if you ran your computer 24/7 around the clock.)

If I still have their attention, this is when I will give them one of the FAH “business cards” that I intend to have printed, or I’ll write down the FAH web site URL on a napkin or a piece of paper. (If they have been receptive to my communication, I’ll try and end the conversation on a positive note by saying something like “I know you’ll be a great protein folder!” or something like that.)

I’ve went around the moon to get to Pittsburgh, but these are some of the verbal techniques I’m employing in an attempt to convert complex science into plain English. There’s a fine balance between getting “too technical” while at the same time explaining this in terms that make sense to a lay person. (And I include myself in the category of “lay person” as I have a very limited understanding of the science. In fact, I’m in awe of what Dr. Pande, Dr. Bowman, et al. are doing.) Occasionally you will find yourself conversing with a person who has a loved one (or a parent or a sibling) who is affected by one of these diseases. In those cases, they will be more likely to understand – and probably more likely to want to volunteer. As I mentioned earlier in this thread, for many of us this is a personal thing.
Alan C. Lawhon
Posts: 97
Joined: Thu Dec 20, 2012 4:58 am

Re: The Personal Touch

Postby bruce » Mon Dec 31, 2012 2:36 pm

I would change a couple of words. Rather than saying "Would you like to be a medical researcher too?" I would suggest saying "Would you like to help Stanford University with medical research too?" A common response to the first question might be to think that she doesn't have the training/knowledge to be a medical researcher, whether she says that or not. A response to the second question is more likely to be "Oh, how can I do that?" which shows you've got her interest.

In either case, there's likely to be a though about (and fear about) joining a field trial of an experimental drug, but that's easily dismissed as long as you have the opportunity to explain that it only involves running a program on her computer -- if the conversation gets that far.
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