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Foldit earns student a national award

Seth Cooper, a co-creator of the game FoldIt, sits at his desk where he plays the game. FoldIt simulates the folding of proteins, and helps scientists solve real-life puzzles. Photo by Kristian Randall

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), announced May 2 that Seth Cooper, creative director of the UW Center for Game Science (CGS), was the recipient of the Doctoral Dissertation Award, an award presented annually to the author of the best doctoral dissertation in computer science and engineering.

The award makes the UW’s computer-science department one of only three in the world that have won the ACM award two times.

Cooper’s award-winning dissertation “A Framework for Scientific Discovery through Video Games” was based on his scientific creation, Foldit, a crowdsourcing computer game allowing the player to discover and solve the structures of proteins.

“The reason we wanted to make it a game was kind of to make it more engaging, I guess, and fun, to get the players involved,” Cooper said.

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Seth Cooper, a co-creator of the game FoldIt, demonstrates how you can use the game to simulate the folding of proteins, and help solve real-life puzzles for scientists.

Cooper added that games like Foldit are complicated and engage players for a long time, enabling them to advance to the point where they would be able to solve scientific problems and gain a domain of expertise.

“Even the introductory level of Foldit alone could take half an hour or so to play through, so it’s a much longer duration of engagement in solving these problems,” Cooper said.

Cooper, a self-proclaimed gamer since he was a kid, started his graduate career with computer-graphics research, working with computer motion tracker and real-time character animation. But halfway through, he started Foldit at the suggestion of his adviser, Zoran Popvic, a Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) professor.

“I had the opportunity to switch to the game, and so of course I took the opportunity, ’cause I really like games,” Cooper said.

What began as a change of study for Cooper has grown into an international collaboration among scientists and game players.

“There are weekly puzzles of proteins [on Foldit] that scientists are actually studying,” said Kathleen Tuite, a fifth-year CSE Ph.D. student who joined the Foldit team during her first year as a graduate student in spring 2008. “By playing these puzzles games, anyone can help scientists solve these proteins.”

Most of the puzzles posted to Foldit come from The Baker Laboratory, a UW biochemical lab overseen by its principal investigator David Baker, who Cooper said came up with the original idea of getting human players involved in protein-solving for Foldit.

“We generate 3D geometries using information from the Baker lab about the amino acids that are needed to make up the proteins and other [technical] requirements,” Cooper said.

Firas Khatib, a UW biochemistry postdoctorate who works in CGS, said that although Foldit players have helped figure out protein structures that have eluded scientists for years, it’s not always the case.

“Sometimes, players also help come up with a better method for solving a protein whose structure has already been figured out,” Khatib said. “In a way, it’s method-testing.”

Cooper said he was very excited to have won the award and said that he and his colleagues at CGS are already starting to work on a number of other projects, including software testing through puzzles and constructing little machines out of DNA.

Popovic not only feels proud of his the accomplishment of his former student, whom he considers “one of the best software developers he’s ever known,” but also believes it holds significance for the UW CSE department and the field of computer science at large.

“If you look over the last 10 years, there are only three CS departments in the world that have won the ACM award two times,” he said. “We are one of them. It is a good indication that UW CSE is one of the top five computer-science departments. Thinking broader, his thesis shows how computer science, when integrated with limitless human cognitive ability, can solve hard problems facing society today.”

Cooper emphasized that in addition to its scientific purposes, another goal for CGS is to use Foldit for education. He said his team is working with Educurious, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating high-school curricula for American students, in trying to integrate Foldit into the classroom.

“One of the cool things about games is that you kind of get to the fun stuff right away, instead of having to read a textbook about it,” Cooper said.

Reach reporter Anh Huynh at news@dailyuw.com.

Twitter: @anhvhuynh

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