Women in Health: Young TB researcher blazing a trail

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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.”

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 still remains elusive.

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Hours in the lab

Pule says although her promise to Mary was to find a cure for HIV, it was TB - an illness which has caused so many deaths worldwide but that is treatable - that caught her attention at university.

She read 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.

Now a biomedical scientist with a doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch, Pule spends hours in the lab, donned 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.

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When she is not in the lab, she often shadows doctors in hospital where they perform surgery relating to TB-related lung cavities.

TB often causes severe damage to lung tissue that results in cavities where fragile lung tissue has been destroyed (TBOnline has a good explanation of how this happens).

“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,” she says.

“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 (CPSLF), which helps establish science clubs and distribute scientific literature to youth 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 that 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.

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“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.

It was in grade 10 when she went to a career guidance expo and she explained to one of the exhibitors what she wanted to be, they asked her 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,” says Pule.

Busy days

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

She recently celebrated her birthday and just came back from an outdoor adventure at the Cederberg Wilderness, 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,” she says.

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 the only woman who won two Nobel prizes in two science fields - one for physics and one for chemistry.

“My grandmother always tells me I can be anything I want to be in life,” she says.

“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.”

*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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