Dr Anthony Nash is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Oxford who specialises in computational chemistry, drug discovery, and clinical epidemiology. Here, you can read about when Victoria E Hill spoke to Anthony about his exciting new project, Science Outreach Servers.
Science Outreach Servers is a network of free, high-performance workstations for those who are technically defined as being from a low- or lower-income nation where the host institute doesn’t have the computational resources necessary for them to carry out their research. This gives students and researchers in the fields of life science, theoretical chemistry and biophysics, and machine learning invaluable opportunities to access the required hardware at no cost to themselves. As Dr Nash says himself, it allows the users “to pursue the science that they want to pursue that would otherwise be unavailable to them.”
Anthony told us of an inspiring story that first kicked the project off. In 2015, during his postdoctoral position at UCL, he was fed up with queues on shared resources slowing down his simulations. And so he was working out of his garage with a workstation sent to him by a friend that was designed initially for financial prediction. Out of the blue, an MSc student from Nepal contacted him and brought forward a research idea that resulted in a fruitful collaboration between the two. The only problem was that “[the student] had all the enthusiasm, he had all the knowledge, but there was nothing for him to actually do – he couldn’t run anything.” Using his university-provided second-hand laptop, what Anthony could run in two hours would take him two months. This individual was educated in Kathmandu and was living in the Himalayas where the Internet is intermittent and access to any kind of HPC resource like this is nearly impossible. However, he used the work produced together with Anthony to present at a conference in India and subsequently go on to study for a PhD in France.
So, last year, Anthony stared at his mountain of spare computer parts that he has collected over the years and thought “I kind of want to do something that interests me, that will drive me, that I have a passion and purpose for”. He returned to the student that he helped back in 2015 to learn about the education in the lower-income nations and found that “the resources are just not there. There is nothing.” So, he built four high-performance workstations crammed full with GPUs, CPUs, and lots of RAM, and quickly realised that space was the bottleneck in the development. He then appealed to the scientific community and they rallied with enough hard drives that he can now cater to 16 users at a time on his server. As Anthony said, “seeing the impact, that this individual went off and started a PhD in France, I just thought that this was a fantastic thing and it just seems insane the fact that running a machine is very much dominated by where you were born. It’s kind of like the last frontier of expanding education.”
This is not the only success story to come from the project, as Shamrat Kumar Paul tweeted:
With a background as a software engineer, and also in artificial intelligence and natural computing, Anthony then found himself adding to his skills by doing a PhD in the field of Computational Chemistry and Chemical Biology followed by a postdoctoral position in Computational Biochemistry. It was during this postdoc that he learnt about remote resources, networks, high-performance computers, clusters, and importantly, how to manage them all. By combining his computing, software, and network architect skills with his scientific knowledge, he is a true swiss army knife for Science Outreach Servers. He has not only set up the machines but also writes any software that requires it and supports the research too. Whilst this is not a collaboration between the users and Dr Nash, he is happy to lend an idea to whatever scientific problems may arise to ensure that the projects run well. BioExcel’s own simulation software, GROMACS, is supported on the machines. Dr Nash has been using the programme since his PhD in 2009. He cites his experience with the tool, as well as its popularity and fantastic community support as the main reasons that it is available on the machines. In his own words, “it is readily available, easy to use, and it is always pushing the boundary in terms of hardware specifications and what to implement next.”
Currently, the project relies on community support. Anthony’s time and own financial resources along with generous donations from the scientific community have allowed the servers to get up and running. The aim of this first year is to run the servers and hopefully gather the support and evidence required to move to a financial model where he can apply for grants and sponsorship to buy more equipment and, long-term, move it out of his home office. However, a surprising obstacle is the limited number of applications to the server. To gain time on the machines, users must come forward with a defined project consisting of a title, description, and the desired outcomes. However, producing the required material is proving to be a barrier. Therefore, if you would like to get involved, sharing the idea and gaining users for the machines is essential to the longevity of the project.
Remaining humble about this amazing undertaking, when asked about the next stages of Science Outreach Servers, Anthony replied “I hope that within this one year, I can support at least the maximum capacity that it can hold at one time. Fingers crossed, I can at least help some people.”
For more information about Science Outreach Servers, or to support the initiative by sharing the idea with your community or by donation, the website, gofundme, and social media links are included below:
Science Outreach Servers: http://www.scienceoutreachservers.org/