In celebration of Women’s Month 2018, we are featuring female researchers who receive funding from the NRF. We thank the ladies for volunteering to share their stories with us.
Ms Caroline Pule is a final-year doctoral student at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science’s Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Stellenbosch University.
What did you study and where?
I completed my BTech in Medical Biotechnology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in December 2011. Thereafter, I attained an MSc in Medical Sciences (molecular biology) from Stellenbosch University in March 2014.
What made you decide to choose your field of study?
I’m a devout believer and knew from a young age that I wanted to live a purposeful life, give back to the community, and help others. My career in medical science was born from my desire to help.
Ever since Grade 10 I knew that I wanted to become a medical scientist but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do within that field – I was mostly interested in HIV and TB. When I was doing my undergrad degree, I was saddened by how many lives are lost because of TB, something that used to be so easily treated. Seeing people dying really got to me and I wanted to do something about it, I wanted to make a difference in public health. I thought that maybe I could contribute to public health by understanding what causes drug-resistant TB and figuring out how to cure it.
What does you current research focus on?
My research focuses on understanding the physiology of drug-resistant and tolerant Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, and how these bacteria modulate the host response in the context of the macrophage infection model. I explore this research question through the use of transcriptomic analysis, fluorescence dilution and macrophage-model experiments, integrating the resulting data using bioinformatics.
A typical week of my research study includes experiments within the lab, analysis of my data and writing of my review articles. During my spare time I read scientific papers relevant to my research. I also attend laboratory and research meetings.
How do you think your work/research can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?
My research findings may lead to the identification of novel biological pathways and the development of novel drug targets to combat the spread of drug-resistant TB.
What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
Firstly, having to prove that, as a young black woman, I have what it takes to become a scientist.
Secondly, when I was doing my undergrad, my second year wasn’t that easy for me. I am used to being a straight-A student but achieved fewer distinctions that year because I took on more responsibilities. The pressure with tests and exams, leadership responsibilities, and sports was hectic but it led me to develop an article about being proactive and productive. The article was published on The Governance’s website.
Lastly, in the laboratory the challenge is that I am a perfectionist. It’s therefore not surprising that my biggest challenge is patience and accepting that not all experiments are successful at the first try, or even the second or third attempt. Nevertheless, due to the fact that I love my work and training as a medical scientist, I have learned to accept that this is the nature of science.
What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
My career objective is to register with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a certified Medical Scientist after completion of my doctorate degree.
My goal in the next ten years is to have completed my second postdoc and to have started as a Senior Scientist Officer at the World Health Organization (WHO). Or, by receiving the Wellcome Trust Grant and starting a new position as an Associate Professor, establishing a TB research lab group with support/advice from my former mentors.
Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?
My grandmother! She always told me that I can be anything I wanted to be in life and she loved the idea that I wanted to become a medical scientist. 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. She taught me that how you present yourself is your personal brand, which can either make you or break you, so choose wisely and think before you speak.
Another heroine of mine is Marie Skłodowska Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934). She was a Polish and naturalised-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize; the first person and only woman to win twice; the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences; and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and, in 1995, became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. Because of the tenacity of this woman and hard work, she represented us well as aspiring women in STEM, opening doors for most of us to be recognised and given a chance to pursue careers in STEM research. She remains a phenomenal woman of the decade and I wish to also add some value in my field of research; something that I can leave for the younger generations.
What other interests do you have outside of your daily work?
I do a lot on the side to sate my desire for making a difference in the world wherever possible. I’m a Founder and CEO of the “Caroline Pule Science and Literacy Foundation” (CPSLF), a foundation that helps establish science clubs in disadvantaged communities and distributes scientific literature to these communities.
Moreover, I occupy leadership positions in multiple organisations focused on TB eradication; women in science, leadership, and community development. To name a few, I’m the Vice-Chair of the organisation of Women in Science in the Developing World, South African National Chapter (OWSD SANC); an Ambassador of the South African National Tuberculosis Association (SANTA); Vice-President of the Western Cape Branch of the South African Association of Women Graduates (SAAWG); an Executive Committee member of the Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SAWISE), and a research director of the non-profit organisation, The Governance (an inter-university organisation of emerging young African leaders and motivational speakers advocating social change by empowering young Africans with pertinent skills).