Scholarship saves Israeli at Stanford

To Yaakov Tsaig, obtaining a doctorate in the United States seemed like a dream. Even though his Iraqi-born parents had done very well in Israel — his father is a retired engineer, his mother a teacher — he still thought attending a private university in the United States was out of the question because someone like him could never afford it.

At the same time, he knew that to be considered for an academic position in Israel, one of the best things is a degree from abroad.

Tsaig, 27, is now in his fourth year at Stanford University, obtaining a Ph.D. in computational mathematics that should be completed next year.

Financial assistance from the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF) enabled him to pursue his dream.

The ISEF was founded in 1977 by the late-Sephardic banking scion Edmond Safra, his wife, Lily, and Nina Weiner, who still serves as its president. The organization offers scholarships to Israelis of Sephardi or Mizrachi background, or those who might not have the same educational opportunities as Jews of Eastern European origin.

Tsaig developed an interest in technology as a child and attended a technology-oriented high school.

He is young to be an Israeli fourth-year Ph.D. student; medical problems prevented him from serving in the IDF so he went straight to Tel Aviv University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. Then he started on his master’s degree.

He was working in the lab of his advisor at Tel Aviv University one day when he had a conversation that would change his life.

“My advisor had a visitor, an Israeli who was doing his Ph.D. at Stanford. He told me how life is at Stanford, how it’s nice to have a change of atmosphere.”

That man was able to study at Stanford because of an ISEF scholarship, and he told Tsaig about it.

Tsaig began looking into it. He took the needed exams, and applied to Stanford.

All doctoral students at Stanford are required to work as research assistants or teach. And while the money they earn helps cover their tuition and living expenses, it still isn’t enough.

“They tell you the wages they pay are not enough to live in Silicon Valley or near campus because it’s an expensive place,” said Tsaig. Though he had some savings, he was still struggling by the end of his first year, which is when he applied for the ISEF scholarship.

“At the end of my first year, I had a lot of doubts about staying in the Ph.D. program, and financially, it was really hard for me,” he said. “But ISEF is what saved me, the support from my second year on.”

In the last school year, 715 students were pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees with support from ISEF.

Tsaig is working on finding solutions for optimization problems. More specifically, he is looking at the technology for the medical procedure Magnetic Resonance Imaging, commonly known as an MRI.

An image is obtained from putting a person into a magnetic field, Tsaig explained, “and it does something to the molecules and the person’s body and you can map that and make it into a picture of an organ.”

The current way to do that is a mathematical process that is rather time-consuming, he said. His team of researchers is trying to come up with a way to do this faster and more accurately.

“It’s very important if you are looking for defects or tumors,” he said.

While Tsaig enjoys the fact that there are so many Israelis studying at Stanford, he definitely plans to go back to Israel and hopefully obtain an academic position at an Israeli university.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."