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College dropout is one-man IT shop — at college lab

Innovative brain scanning lab relies on just one system administrator

By , Network World
January 30, 2009 03:32 PM ET

Network World - Meet Justin King — the one-man IT shop. At the 5-year-old Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, IT plays a key role in innovative research involving fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines.

(See our story on the Human Neuroimaging Lab's groundbreaking research.)

Researchers and post-doctoral students at HNL spend their time answering questions such as: Why are humans inclined to trust strangers in matters of finance? And how does awareness of a brand (such as Coca-Cola) influence our preferences and what does that tell us about the human brain? Behind the scenes is an IT infrastructure with storage systems from four vendors, 30 x86 servers and two high-performance computing clusters.

Managing it all is just one man — Justin King. The best part? He's a college dropout.

King, 29, attended the University of Texas, but was thoroughly unimpressed by its computer science department. In one class, he remembers there being far more students than computers, and many of them were broken. He left after two years.

"I said you're kidding me — one of the biggest schools in the nation can't get enough computers to use? On top of that, it was 1999. People were getting $50 million to teach swimming lessons online,"King says.

There's some exaggeration there, but many people have succeeded without a college degree. Bill Gates skipped out of Harvard in 1976, after all.

King had been working in a computer store since high school and figured he could at least get a job doing desktop support. He did just that at Sysco, the food company with headquarters in Houston. King was hired away nine months later by Read Montague, a neuroscience professor who was starting up a software company called Quaadros.

The company failed, but King followed Montague to Baylor College in 2001. By 2003, Montague had opened his Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, and King's role has only expanded with each passing year.

Montague, despite being a professor, didn't seem to mind King's lack of a college degree.

"I just sort of work like a maniac,"King says. "That's right up Read's alley. He just puts everyone to shame. He works all the time."

Today, King is the sole system administrator for the Human Neuroimaging Lab and the Computational Psychiatry Unit. King, as well as a few software programmers at the lab, have immersed themselves not only in computer technology but also in the science of fMRI experiments, says Montague, who is director of the HNL.

"It's a very rare system administrator … who understands the nature of the experiments we're doing,"Montague says. "I always included them as much as possible. There's not a cultural gap between the scientists and the computer guys."

It's common for King and the programmers to ask probing questions — do you really want to store the data that way? What method should be used to anonymize personal information? The intertwined nature of scientists and techies at HNL has helped keep the lab nimble and lean, Montague says.

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