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Robert de Haas

The spotlight is on Robert de Haas, Former Student Leo Kannercollege, The Netherlands.

What is the Frankenstein mosquito? You’re about to find out. And Greenfoot? Greenfoot is a visual, interactive program that introduces students to Java programming. It’s a fun way to code using objects, not text, and is used for two-dimensional simulations and games.

The so-called Frankenstein mosquito has been genetically modified using the ‘gene drive’ technique to reduce the spread of malaria, a disease that infects 200 million people and causes 600,000 deaths each year.

Passionate about birds and insects, when Robert de Haas was a high school student, he became intrigued by the bloodsucking nastiness of Anopheles Gambiae, one of the toughest of the 40 malaria transmitting species. He decided to use Greenfoot to model the potential reduction of malaria resulting from mating Frankenstein mosquitos with killer populations.

De Haas got to know Greenfoot at the Leo Kannercollege in Leiden, a Dutch high school for students with an autism spectrum disorder. He was taught its use by Zeno Umesh van der Zalm, who previously was featured in a success story. De Haas is now studying Applied Mathematics at the University of Utrecht.

“At high school, Robert was brilliant at mathematics and loved biology,” recalls van der Zalm. “He would feed the jackdaws around his house, watching them grow, studying them. He has great affinity with all living beings, and the Greenfoot-Frankenstein project exemplifies that.”

In 2023 Robert won third prize in the category Nature and Health of the KNAW Onderwijsprijs – or the KNAW Education Prize, the prize for exceptional pre-university education (VWO) profile assignments. With this prize, the KNAW wants to encourage and reward excellent performance in secondary education in The Netherlands.

Oracle Academy: Can you tell us the background to the malaria problem?


We used Greenfoot as an introduction to Java programming. I completed the Oracle Academy Java Workshop Creating Java Programs with Greenfoot, which really helped me to grasp the features and functions of Greenfoot. We watched videos of people creating games and simulations and it gave me the tools for making a model. Greenfoot helped me to understand Java and how Java works.

Robert de Haas: Mosquitoes have been pests forever, keeping us awake, filling their stomachs with our blood, and transmitting terrible diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus with their saliva. And what's worse, we can't escape them. People have been trying to protect themselves against mosquito bites for millennia. The ancient Romans rubbed themselves with vegetable oils and vinegar or burned herbs, using the smoke to keep them at bay. Later came chemical prophylaxis such as quinine, then pesticides such as DDT or biological pesticides that kill off larvae before they can grow into adults that bite. Natural enemies have been used, such as bats that eat adult mosquitoes or fish that feast on their larva.

But now we have the gene drive and the Frankenstein mosquito which, despite certain opposition, have been proved to have an impact in places like São Tomé y Principe, the island off Central Africa. My Greenfoot model is an attempt to contribute to the ever-growing need to curtail the impact of malaria mosquitoes.

Oracle Academy: Impressive. And in what way did you use Greenfoot to create the model?

Robert de Haas: Greenfoot helped me bring to life the ‘world’ of malaria mosquitos, the ‘actors’ involved. I created a 2D simulation of gene drive insects infiltrating malaria-bearing populations to diminish their effectiveness. The ‘world’ is the ecosystem of malaria parasites, an African grassland containing the lake where larvae are spawned, the swarm center (bushes), and the village where the mosquitos go for their meals and cause disease and death.

The ‘actors’ are the two mosquito types, Frankenstein and the normal Anopheles Gambiae, plus the eggs, larvae and pupae. The ‘actors’ are visual objects coded in Greenfoot. I drew the images myself, using different colors for male/female, Frankenstein and normal, converted them to .png and imported them.

To input scientific data — temperatures, seasons, mosquito populations — I used Java. At Leo Kannercollege, I learned the elements of Java with Oracle Academy, but I called on my father, a Java programmer, to help me. There was quite a lot of mathematics involved, but in summary, the Greenfoot model of the mosquito population examines the extent to which Frankenstein mosquitoes suppress the malaria-bearing populations over time.

The great thing about Greenfoot is that it’s visual and interactive. If something is visual, it’s nicer to see and also nicer to program.

Robert's Frankenstein mosquito

Robert's Frankenstein mosquito

Oracle Academy: How much of what you learned at Leo Kannercollege helped you in this project?

Robert de Haas: In the Computational Thinking course, we used Greenfoot as an introduction to Java programming. I completed the Oracle Academy Java Workshop Creating Java Programs with Greenfoot, which really helped me to grasp the features and functions of Greenfoot. We watched videos of people creating games and simulations and it gave me the tools for making a model. Greenfoot helped me to understand Java and how Java works. I also learned Oracle APEX, which we used to create a video webstore, and implemented Oracle Digital Assistant as a chatbot interface to customers. It was a great course, including playing with Finch Robots for understanding… well, how things work!

But what really triggered my interest in applying coding to mathematics and biology was a guest speaker from the Central Bureau of Statistics. He lectured us on modelling the demographic future of The Netherlands. I wanted to know more about the mathematics behind the modelling and Mr. van de Zalm suggested I apply that to the mandatory profile assignments all high school students in Holland must deliver. And that’s how Frankenstein was born!

Oracle Academy: And with dramatic effect, since you were awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) for that research!

Robert de Haas: Yes, in 2023 I won third place in the Nature and Health category, as an example of exceptional pre-university education profile assignments. My submission was a 90-page mathematical model paper and accompanying video, in Greenfoot, summarizing the results.

Oracle Academy: Congratulations. Do you have any lessons learned to share after the gene drive modelling experience?

Robert de Haas: To start with, it was a pleasure to realize that I could do my profile assignment using Greenfoot to create the simulation model. We were told that in later life one often has to conduct research and write a report. The advice was to ask oneself ‘what do I want to do in life after school?’ Knowing that I wanted to be involved in mathematical models and biology, I seized the opportunity to use Greenfoot for the Frankenstein project.

I learned a lot during the process. For example, I learned how to read scientific articles, challenging texts that were hard for me before. Likewise, I have become better at formulating complex sentences in an accessible way. Probably the major challenge was to convert mathematical formulas into Java code, but I eventually succeeded. I created the mating probability and fitness formulas myself, which was gratifying. I have also become better at Excel graphs and, of course, I’m not bad at Java programming!

Oracle Academy: That’s all good to hear. Robert, what other interests do you have besides math and biology?

Robert de Haas: I definitely want to pursue that combination of mathematical modelling in the context of biology, be it insects, birds or other fields.

I love the world around me. Since I was young, I have drawn and painted, mainly birds, and continue to do so. I have even recently created a bird-based family board game. Have not yet patented it!

Thank you, Robert de Haas, for your passion for technology and Oracle Academy.

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