'First time I held a scalpel and cut into a body sealed the deal': At age 24 this UCT lecturer is taking human anatomy by storm
UCT clinical anatomy lecturer Jeshika Luckrajh, 24, talks about her steep trajectory into academia and how having mentors helped her realise her dream
At the age of 23, Jeshika Luckrajh had never lived outside her family home in Durban. However, at 24 the University of Cape Town (UCT) lecturer has already achieved what it takes other professionals decades to accomplish.
Her aptitude in human anatomy not only saw her land a job in one of the top universities in the world, but she is one of the youngest academics in the country, has already published at least five research papers and has presented her work at several national and international conferences.
“Academia is tough. But if you love your field, and you have this passion for the science, you focus, you persevere. And you go, go, go,” she said.
This Youth Month, the lecturer in clinical anatomy at UCT’s department of human biology talks about her steep trajectory into academia and how having mentors has helped her realise her dream.
It was in biology class at school that she had discovered the intricacies of the body and how it all fitted together, particularly the vascular system that operated like rivers and tributaries to feed the heart, brain and organs.
Everything is so perfectly designed. Every system works together to make this perfectly functioning human.Jeshika Luckrajh
“Everything is so perfectly designed. Every system works together to make this perfectly functioning human,” said Luckrajh.
Studying clinical anatomy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where she graduated with her Masters degree, deepened her appreciation of how finely tuned human anatomy is.
“The first time I held that scalpel and cut into a body sealed the deal. There was never any looking back. It was the most amazing experience ever,” she said.
“The first time I opened a human skull and removed the brain, I realised I held a person’s entire life: their thoughts and memories, their emotions, their feelings, everything they did, it was right there.”
By her honours year, Luckrajh still wasn’t sure how she would make a career of anatomy, but she raised her hand for part-time jobs as a research assistant, tutor and academic mentor, keen to learn and supplement her modest student funding.
She didn’t dawdle either. In 2019, Luckrajh finished her Masters degree, graduating in September. Rapid-fire events saw her appointed as a clinical anatomy lecturer at UCT three months later.
In December 2019, she arrived in Cape Town and started work in January 2020. Two months later, however, having barely unpacked, lockdown was announced.
Luckrajh returned to Durban and learnt to work remotely. Pictures of cadaveric specimens were put online. New software programmes aided teaching and helped students adapt to a brave new world.
She was able to return to UCT and her lab in March this year, at the start of the new academic year.
She shared how she has benefitted from highly supportive colleagues in the department, who made sure she was adapting to a new city and a new role. That mentorship is essential for new academics, she said.
“It was invaluable to know I had supportive colleagues who would always be ready to listen, answer my questions and generally check up on my wellbeing. I’ve felt very supported.”
Although you are young, you got there on merit and you deserve to be where you are.Jeshika Luckrajh
Luckrajh has also been able to publish five papers. The biggest implications of research like hers is for surgeons, she said. In her masters, she investigated a 2mm-long artery, which is the most common site of aneurysm in the brain.
“We found arteries leading to the point of the aneurysm may be a millimetre or so smaller in diameter. We call it hypoplastic. It hadn’t developed as much. This may be a possible anatomical reason for the formation of the aneurysm. While the surgeon goes in to fix the problem, the clinical anatomist studies the anatomy of the artery to see variations and give an anatomical explanation.”
Being a young lecturer came with its own challenges, but thanks to senior staff who had similar experiences, that helped her to be authoritative.
As luck would have it, Luckrajh soon found herself in the company of UCT’s vice-chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, who invited Luckrajh to a regular brunch for new staff.
Luckrajh was fortunate to be seated next to Phakeng. Her advice to the young academic was manna: “Prof Phakeng told me she was a principal of a school at 23 and faced similar challenges. And I said, please tell me how you managed.
“She told me it was about keeping to principles. And what a valuable lesson that was. I was so inspired by her and how, from such a young age, she took on that role. I want to follow that and keep to principles. Although you are young, you got there on merit and you deserve to be where you are.”
The rewards of her work are starting to flow, and she is already receiving rave reviews from students who affirm her and her teaching.
One wrote: “Thank you so much for going through those lectures so slowly and in detail. Human biology always gets me, but I really enjoyed the section.”
As a message to the youth, Luckrajh emphasised each person should take time to find out what motivates them. For her, family was her motivation.
“Everyone is different and things that motivate us are different, but if you’re able to find what it is that motivates you to keep going and focus on that, it’s amazing what you’ll be able to achieve.”
Luckrajh is endeavouring to begin her PhD and continuing her academic trajectory.
“It’s onwards and upwards from here.”