Meryl Jagarnath joins the Environmental Health division as nGAP member

03 May 2021 | Story Robert Morrell. Photo Supplied. Read time 6 min.
Meryl Jagarnath.
Meryl Jagarnath.

Meryl Jagarnath arrived at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) lecturer after a period as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southampton. Her arrival in Cape Town was delayed by the global lockdown associated with COVID-19, but she is now safely resident and throwing herself into her academic work.

Meryl’s interest and expertise lies in studying the impacts of environmental hazards on the health of people. These hazards include air pollution, drought, heat stress and flooding. The focus of her work is specifically on the impacts on vulnerable populations, such as children, women and the urban poor.


“I was always interested in the way that humans have impacted on nature and also how nature has impacted on humans.”

Coming from Durban

Jagarnath describes herself as a Durbanite.

She completed her schooling in Durban and her undergraduate studies to PhD in environmental sciences at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Westville. She studied environmental science because she “was always interested in the way that humans have impacted on nature and also how nature has impacted on humans”.

She grew up as a Hindu, so she has “never thought of humans as being separate from nature” as she believes that “all forms of life on earth are connected to each other”. From early on she was interested in the health of people and the planet.

Jagarnath’s PhD, which was awarded in 2019, focused on planning for climate change in Durban. It focused on the impacts of heat stress on the city and its population, and how spatial planning could help in the mitigation of and adaptation to those risks. Thereafter, she spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southampton researching climate change risk and vulnerability mapping in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

“I particularly enjoy using spatial data and analysis such as geographic information systems to combine data and information from various sources to address complex problems such as climate change and health.”

Family and support

Jagarnath is the youngest in her family and the first to go to university. She has two older siblings, who did not get the opportunity to further their education after school because of financial constraints. Her father works as an artisan and her mom as a housewife.

“They instilled the value of education and supported my dreams.”

She singles out Dr Tirusha Thambiran and Professor Michael Gebreslasie as people who played a huge role in supporting her on her journey and encouraging her to become an academic.

“Both were mentors since my first thesis in honours and have taught me that the kindest people are the most brilliant.”

Jagarnath also acknowledges the funding support of the National Research Foundation (for her MSc) and the South African National Space Agency (for her PhD). That financial support was key to her continuing to postgraduate education and boosted her self-belief and confidence in an academic career.

Coming to UCT

Jagarnath is based in the Division of Environmental Health in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine. With the help of Professor Hanna-Andrea Rother, the head of the division, she has settled down quickly, despite the challenges of lockdown and, more recently, the devastating fire.

“Getting this position was a dream come true as I have wanted to become an academic ever since my first year at university.”

She is looking forward to meeting with the rest of the ‘nGAPpers’ and contributing to UCT’s vision for itself and for wider society. Having already started with her teaching duties, she reports having enjoyed the postgraduate classes that she has been involved in teaching.


“I am looking forward to seeing my students for face-to face teaching soon, hopefully!”

“I am impressed by the level of commitment and responsiveness of students, which has made delivering teaching or discussions online pleasant for me as they are engaged, asking questions and willing to contribute their views. I am looking forward to seeing my students for face-to face teaching soon, hopefully!”

Jagarnath’s introduction to UCT has also had its moments of drama. She was evacuated from her staff accommodation due to the fire, but she was quickly placed in alternative accommodation.

“It was a nerve-racking experience, but I did feel supported by UCT emergency staff and my colleagues during the time. It made me realise how big the UCT community is, and I am proud to be part of it and hope to carry on and provide other emerging academics and researchers with the support that I have been given.”

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