Maverick Citizen

SPOTLIGHT

Women in Health: Young TB researcher is blazing a trail

Dr Caroline Pule, a biomedical scientist working in tuberculosis research, has a passion for finding answers that can help ease the suffering caused by diseases such as TB. (Photo: Supplied / spotlight)

For Dr Caroline Pule, a biomedical scientist working in tuberculosis research, her passion for finding answers that can help ease the suffering caused by diseases such as TB started with a promise she wrote in her diary when she was 13. Spotlight spoke to Pule about following her dream of saving lives and teaching young girls to believe in possibilities.

It started with a promise to a little girl called Mary.

Dr Caroline Pule (31) recalls she was about 13 years old when she read about the girl and how she lost both her parents to HIV. That same day, says Pule, she wrote in her diary: “Don’t worry, Mary, I will find the cure for HIV. I will go find a cure for HIV.”

Pule TB
Dr Caroline Pule says although her promise to Mary was to find a cure for HIV, it was tuberculosis (TB) that caught her attention at university. She read about and saw many people dying because of TB and it really got to her, Pule says. TB is still the number one killer of people with HIV in South Africa. (Photo: Supplied / Spotlight)

It was this story about Mary and how HIV was killing people that made Pule vow to do something about it. HIV can be suppressed in the body with life-saving antiretroviral medicines, but a cure or effective vaccine remains elusive.

Hours in the lab

Pule says although her promise to Mary was to find a cure for HIV, it was TB — which has caused so many deaths worldwide, but is treatable — that caught her attention at university. She read about and saw many people dying from TB and it really got to her, Pule says. TB is still the number-one killer of people with HIV in South Africa.

Now a biomedical scientist with a doctorate from Stellenbosch University, Pule spends hours in the lab, in a white coat and goggles behind a microscope, looking at samples.

Her main research interests are in drug-resistant TB, TB drug discovery and TB surgery.

When not in the lab she often shadows doctors performing surgery on lung cavities which form when the disease destroys fragile lung tissue (see TBOnline).

“I explore surgery as a treatment-adjunct modality for drug-resistant TB, in settings with a very high TB prevalence,” Pule explains. “My research looks at how we can do surgery on a patient with drug-resistant TB to remove the cavity completely so that they can be free of TB.

“What I do is not the easiest thing, but it can be done. It’s long hours of work trying to find answers and going to hospital. Though it can take so much time and can be so frustrating when things go wrong, it is so rewarding.”

For girls who don’t believe it’s possible

Pule is also the founder and CEO of the Caroline Pule Science and Literacy Foundation, which helps establish science clubs and distribute scientific literature to young people in disadvantaged communities. She says she wanted to share her passion and scientific knowledge.

“You know, this is not just about me. It’s about all the other young girls who don’t know what they want to do. It’s about the girls who don’t believe it is possible. It’s about being a role model and showing others it can be done. Yes, it will not [always] turn out the way you planned, but things will always work out,” she says.

Her own story indeed makes for an inspiring model.

“Because I wanted to save lives and help people, my parents wanted me to do medicine and become a doctor. Gathering more information and seeing what doctors do, I couldn’t see myself in front of people dying. I just couldn’t do it. It really broke my heart,” she says.

Then, in Grade 10 when she went to a career guidance expo and explained to one of the exhibitors what she wanted to be, they asked: why not become a medical scientist? “They told me you will still save lives, just that this time you will not be patient-facing. You will find cures and, in turn, save lives, but your work starts in the lab. It sounded interesting and I liked it from that day.”

Dr Caroline Pule
Dr Caroline Pule says she draws her strength from two other women, her grandmother and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie. (Photo: Supplied / Spotlight)

Busy days

Despite her busy schedule, Pule takes time to do the things that she likes and to re-energise. She is a passionate runner, a hiker who loves outdoor adventures, and a gym fanatic.

She recently celebrated her birthday and has just returned from an outdoor adventure at the Cederberg Wilderness Area, where she hiked the Wolfberg Cracks and Arch with a friend.

“I like running. It helps me prepare mentally for the day. I really enjoy the outdoors. I like having fun. If I’m not working, I make sure I live my life to the fullest and enjoy the good things in life. I love inspiring others through my career journey in medical sciences, my running and hiking adventures.”

Pule says she draws her strength from two other women, her grandmother and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie. Curie is also the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in two science fields — physics and chemistry.

“My grandmother always tells me I can be anything I want to be in life. She taught me so much about living a purposeful life, the power of generosity, humility and hard work. She made me understand what it means to live a life full of endless possibilities and knowing that the sky is not the limit.” DM/MC

This article is part of Spotlight’s Women in Health series featuring the remarkable contributions of South African women to medicine and science.

This article was produced by Spotlight — health journalism in the public interest.

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