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Huibregtsen Award 2021 to professors Bhulai and Van der Mei

4 October 2021
VU Amsterdam Professor of Business Analytics Sandjai Bhulai and Professor of Applied Mathematics Rob van der Mei (CWI national research institute for mathematics and computer science/VU) have been named the joint winners of the 2021 Huibregtsen Award for their research project on ‘Mathematics for a safer and healthier Netherlands’.

The award comes in recognition of their work, which unites scientific excellence and innovation with outstanding value to society. ‘One of our developments involves methods and models to ensure more ambulances arrive on time. We’re not only out to publish in respected academic journals. Above all, this is about how science can help to save lives’, Rob van der Mei explained.

Presented during the Dutch annual Night of Science & Society (Avond van Wetenschap & Maatschappij) in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague on 4 October, the award consists of a sculpture titled The Thinker by artist Wil van der Laan, a workshop offered by the Lorentz Center in Leiden, and 25,000 euros in cash, which professors Bhulai and Van der Mei can use towards research activities.

Smart ambulance scheduling
Sandjai Bhulai and Rob van der Mei have been working together for more than twenty years to devise mathematical solutions to a wide array of societal challenges. A case in point is ambulances, which are supposed to arrive at the site of an emergency in fifteen minutes or less, but don’t always manage to do so. Bhulai and Van der Mei came up with a new scheduling method that reduces late arrivals by 25 to 30 per cent. Their method has been implemented in a number of the country’s ‘safety regions’ already, and also lends itself to fire, police, roadside assistance and maintenance services.

The two researchers are also working on cutting waiting times in geriatric care, suicide prevention, cybercrime prevention and rapid news identification on social media. The latter method is currently used by the Dutch news agencies nu.nl and ANP. For Covid-19 vaccinations, the two worked with a team of VU students to develop models and a scheduling tool to optimize vaccine allocations across vaccination centres nationwide, so as many people as possible could be inoculated.

From the judges’ report
Concerning this project, the judging panel wrote: ‘The mathematical solutions presented are efficient and elegant, but truly exceptional in the field are the lengths Bhulai and Van der Mei have gone to to ensure their work is put into practice. Thus, while piloting the new ambulance scheduling system, the researchers were very attentive to feedback from EMS nurses to ensure the system would be workable for them.’ The judges were also impressed with Bhulai and Van der Mei’s teamwork and their outstanding partnerships with a myriad of societal partners. As the panel noted, ‘This is mathematics for the real world’.

Huibregtsen Award
The Huibregtsen Award (Huibregtsenprijs), named in honour of the engineer Wouter Huibregtsen, was created in 2005 by the foundation that organizes the Night of Science & Society. It is presented to research projects that combine scientific innovation with real potential for societal applications. This year’s judging panel, chaired by Ineke Sluiter, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), selected six research projects from among 31 nominees. A film documenting the shortlist was shown at the Night of Science & Society. Also among these nominees was Amsterdam UMC Professor of Neurology Wiesje van Flier. Last year’s award went to VU Amsterdam Professors Johan Hoorn and Elly Konijn for their project: ‘Alice – an electromechanical grandchild to alleviate loneliness’.