In 2013, Kiara Nirghin’s home country of South Africa was reeling from the worst drought in 30 years. The dry spell was so severe that government officials implemented strict water restrictions and declared disaster areas in five provinces. The agricultural industry was hit particularly hard as crops dried up, farmers went out of business and food production prices soared.

“It was like this entire wave hitting us,” Nirghin said. “It was really bad.”

Nirghin, who grew up in Johannesburg and was just 13 at the time, was facing her own crisis. She had contracted a parasite-induced disease called bilharzia, causing her to lose weight and become jaundiced. With a weakened immune system, she then developed a serious case of bacterial meningitis. She spent weeks in a hospital and months in recovery.

But Nirghin’s recovery was not wasted time. She kept up with her studies and pursued her love for science by reading research publications. It was also a deeply introspective period of her life, during which she began to seriously consider some of the social, economic and environmental challenges her country was facing, including the efficacy of policies put forth to address the drought.

“I was young at the time, but I knew that the solutions being put in place were not groundbreaking,” she said. “So I started looking at the problem and saw how I could break it down into something that I could solve.”

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