BE alumnus earns Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Shakked Halperin enjoys traveling, and he’s already seen more of the world than most people do in a lifetime. But it’s his next stop that might be his most important yet — not just for him, but for some of the people in the places he’s visited.

A man in a mortarboard.

Shakked Halperin

A 2013 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering, Halperin was one of 40 students from all over the United States to receive a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, paving the way for him to earn a master’s degree in biological science from the University of Cambridge in England.

According to the scholarship’s website, Gates Cambridge Scholarships “are prestigious, highly competitive full-cost scholarships. They are awarded to outstanding applicants from countries outside the United Kingdom to pursue a full-time postgraduate degree in any subject available at the University of Cambridge.” They were established in 2000 by an endowment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Halperin plans to use his time at the university to work toward creating a sensor that will identify safe drinking water and, in turn, mitigate arsenic poisoning along with other waterborne diseases. Such pathogens cause 1.8 million deaths annually, 88 percent of which are caused by an unsafe water supply according to the World Health Organization.

It’s a problem the Chesterfield, Mo., native came across during his travels, which include working with Ethiopian children and stops in Honduras, China and Israel, among others. Halperin worked on reconstructing a failing wastewater treatment system in Honduras through Engineers Without Borders, where one particular incident helped spark his desire to use his engineering skills to make the world a better place.

“On one of my trips to Honduras, before we approached the wastewater treatment lagoon, we required the team to be covered from head to toe with protective equipment,” Halperin said. “When we arrived at the lagoon, we found children bathing in the pathogenic water. The astonishing difference between our circumstances caused me to start viewing access to clean water as a basic human right.”

During his time in China, Halperin worked on development of a sustainable water purifying material, and he plans to develop an arsenic sensor while at Cambridge. He chose the renowned English university so he could contribute to the Arsenic Biosensor Collaboration, which he said will expose him to “all aspects of developing an application of synthetic biology, including theoretical idea conception, wet lab work, field testing, regulatory compliance and implementation.”

But before starting, he first had to get into the university, then earn the scholarship. He applied to Cambridge and completed the required essay and found himself among the top 200 out of roughly 800 applicants. The committee then trimmed the field to 90, and, after a round of interviews, the top 40 were offered Gates Cambridge Scholarships.

Halperin was in Israel when news of his selection reached him.

“I started dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, alone, to no music,” he said of his reaction.

The MU alum credited Tim Parshall, the director of the MU Fellowships Office — and the faculty who have worked with him — for enabling him to pick up such a unique honor and award.

“A tip for future applicants — Tim is your friend,” he said.

For now, Halperin will continue his travels until it’s time to get to work at Cambridge. A backpacking trip through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam is next up — just a look at another part of the world before he gets back to work trying to make it a better place.

“Every time I travel, I broaden my understanding of the human condition and strengthen my desire and ability to make an impact,” he said.

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