Clean water is a human right

  • April 2, 2014
Clean water is a human right

Scholar Elect Shakked Halperin's research will seek to find new sustainable, affordable ways to secure safe water supplies using synthetic biology.

Arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh has poisoned millions of people. Shakked Halperin’s research will seek to find new sustainable, affordable ways to secure safe water supplies using synthetic biology. It will build on earlier work he has done on nano-materials in China and on his desire to combine his artistic and engineering knowledge in the service of real life problems.

Shakked was born in St Louis, Missouri, and lived there until he was four before his family moved to North Carolina. Three years later the family returned to St Louis and he went to high school there. He describes his family life as very Israeli. His father was born in Israel and his mother was born in Morocco.  “We had a strong sense of Israeli identity,” he says, adding that he, his parents and four brothers regularly visited family in Israel. Indeed Shakked lived in Israel for a year after leaving high school in 2009. “I wanted to take a break and do something different,” he says. He was divided between whether to do arts or engineering at university and was leaning more towards arts school, but he was good at science and maths. “At school I was in a rock band and a marching band. I was known as the art guy. My house is full of art work,” he says.

He was torn, though, and felt he needed time to think so he volunteered to work with young Ethiopian Jews in Israel. “It was a very intense year, but in the end I decided that I wanted to keep helping people and that the way that I could have the most impact was through using my science and maths skills,” he adds. While in Israel, he was involved in several arts projects, including a 30-foot painting for the Ethiopian community which is still hanging in the local city hall. It depicts the people he has worked with travelling through the Sudanese desert to get to Israel and once they get there. Some 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died making their way to Israel. “It’s the most powerful thing I have done,” he says.


He was thinking of enlisting in the Israeli army, but at the last minute changed his mind and thought engineering was a better use of his skills. He applied late to the University of Missouri and began a degree in chemical engineering before switching to biological engineering. In his first summer he worked for a biotech company evaluating software. During his first year he was a science tutor and got paid for working with undergraduates from less represented groups. He also started doing some research on crystallography. In his second year he moved to bio-engineering and in the summer won a place on a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates biology programme at the University of California at Berkeley.

At first he was intimidated by the fact that many of those taking part were from top universities, but he ended up leading his project because of his creative skills. The project investigated the origins of multi-cellularity. His team designed a 3D device which could trap organisms and hold them in place so they could be studied. He found the research environment stimulating and was excited by the fact that there was a role for creativity in engineering. “I realised I could visualise things and understand design issues better because I had that artistic background,” he says. Since that experience he has started to submit articles for publication in peer review journals and has had two on which he is first author published and two more are pending publication.

In addition to his research, Shakked was keen to apply his knowledge to real problems. In his first year he joined Engineering without Borders and by his second year he had become an officer in the organisation. In his third year he was a project leader on a waste water treatment project in Honduras. His team tried to make the waste water treatment facility sustainable using local materials. They created handbooks to help local people maintain the facility and also gave them some training. At the start of the project, his team were dressed head to foot in protective equipment and Shakked noticed children bathing in the contaminated water. “It showed me the difference between my situation and the conditions in which they were growing up. It brought home to me that access to clean safe water is a basic human right,” says Shakked.


As a result of his experience in Honduras, he travelled to China through a National Science Foundation international research experience for undergraduates programme in the summer his last semester. He was looking to develop a sustainable nano-material that could purify water. The material breaks down organic material in water when it is hit by the sun. “My idea was that a truly sustainable solution is one that requires minimal maintenance and lasts a long time,” he says. “The material was literally a piece of ceramic which, when illuminated, with continuously clean water.”

In China he created a new structure which would increase the surface area covered by the material so increasing its efficiency. However, he soon realised that the production costs of nano-materials made them out of reach for use in developing countries so he started looking for a more sustainable engineering practice which combined biology and engineering and switched his focus to synthetic biology. “I believe synthetic biology will change every single field,” he says. He applied for an MPhil in Biological Science at the University of Cambridge to work on a research collaboration which is looking to develop an arsenic biosensor. “Currently, most synthetic biology investigations focus on foundational technologies,” he says.  His research will involve fieldwork in Nepal.

Since graduating in December, Shakked has been travelling, visiting Israel, Jordan and Thailand, where he spent 10 days in silence in a Thai monastery. The experience made him focus on people’s attachment to things. “The monks think this is the root of all suffering,” he says. “It made me think about possessions, about our values in a consumer society.” As a result he has set up the What we have project which involves him asking the people he meets on his travels to tell him about something they have. He then stores their quotes and photos in an artistic format. “I hope they will show the changing perspectives between different societies on what it means to have something and on what our values are,” he says, noting that many of those he has spoken to in Asia show little attachment to concrete possessions.

He plans further travels before hopefully returning to the US to do an internship with a synthethic biology company.

Picture credit: and thyme28.

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