This Frontline Doctor Uses Running To Keep Focussed
Given Dr Caroline Pule’s extensive experience and specialist research knowledge of TB and Aids, her insight and future findings among the people of Africa will be of benefit to the world in the fight against Covid-19. But this inspiring South African relies on running to help her handle the mental challenges of her job so she can stay focussed.
When did you decide on your career path? And can you describe what it is that drives you?
Caroline Pule: 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 sciences was born from desire to help people and passion to save lives.
Ever since high school, in Grade 10, my dream was always to become a medical scientist, in order to find cures for incurable diseases and help save lives. But I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do within that field – I was mostly interested in HIV and TB.
Then, when I was doing my undergrad degree in medical biotechnology, I was saddened by how many lives were being 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 global health.
I thought that maybe I could contribute to global health by understanding what causes drug-resistant TB, and figuring out how to cure it. This was and is still is my biggest inspiration; together with my compassion for people and generous heart, it keeps me focused.
Additionally, my love for and desire to travel the world and to share my TB research work, and to learn more about the groundbreaking research work being done by other scientists across the globe, all motivated me to study towards my PhD degree – in order to become a doctor and a young, independent medical scientist, which I am now.
RW: What does your job entail?
CP: I’m a medical scientist, working either in global surgery with the medical doctors in a hospital, or researching in a laboratory. So my day-to-day work varies and is quite complex, depending on the tasks I have to complete and the goals set for each week.
Mostly, if I’m not shadowing one of the surgical doctors in theatre during procedures relevant to TB surgery research, I’ll be conducting experiments in the lab, analysing my research data, and writing reviews and scientific papers and articles. I also supervise students, write research protocols, apply for research grants and compile scientific presentations.
Lastly, I attend laboratory and research committee meetings to discuss our current clinical research studies – in TB, HIV, and now Covid-19 – being done in global surgery. During my spare time I read scientific papers relevant to my research in global surgery. And I run!
RW: What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
CP: Firstly, in the laboratory the challenge is that I’m a perfectionist. It’s therefore not surprising that my biggest challenge is patience, and accepting that not all experiments are successful at the first attempt, or even the second or third. Nevertheless, because I love my work as a medical scientist, I’ve learned to accept that this is the nature of science.
Secondly, at the hospital, the challenge is the reports of lives being lost, and who didn’t make it through surgery. It’s really heartbreaking; we would wish for all lives to be saved. But that’s not always the case.
Additionally, since I also manage the global surgery research cluster besides conducting my own research, one of the challenges is to be the best, most exceptional leader I can be as a young woman scientist in a highly male-dominated work environment – doctors, registrars, surgeons and professors.
But I thank God that I work with a great, supportive team – I’m managing the latter challenge very well, and I get all the support I need to excel in my work environment.
RW: How did the tribulations of 2020 affect what you do?
CP: The events of Covid-19 and lockdown had a great impact on what I do; it was unexpected, and put a lot of strain on the medical field and public health. But it also provided a platform fo me to come forward as one of the frontliners, to use my medical research background and expertise to help our country to fight Covid-19. I joined the CrowdFight Covid-19 initiative (which I’m still part of), which is a global organisation that enables volunteer scientists from various countries to work together in their fields of expertise in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, by signing up at crowdfightcovid19.org.
I’m still one of their local contact team in South Africa; I receive tasks weekly and sometimes biweekly, depending on the demands of the main, specific researchers doing the actual Covid-19 research to find a cure. I also volunteered as the Cape Town MES Charity organisation, helping to feed homeless people and educate them about Covid-19 during lockdown.
RW: What part does running play in your life?
CP: I love running, because it’s liberating, inspirational, encouraging, and easy, yet so challenging; and therefore it goes without saying that it plays a huge part in my life. And the fact that I can run till old age gives me hope for doing this sport!
Running makes me feel at peace, but alert; and always motivated. Interestingly, running during the Covid-19 pandemic has really been helpful, mentally – on another level. It’s been helping me with reducing the stress of the panic and worry of living through a pandemic.
After every run I feel refreshed, and ready for whatever challenges might arise, I feel much better, and at ease – and it allows me to sleep better, and more peaceful!
RW: Have you always been a runner?
CP: Yes – I’m a passionate runner, and my love for it started when I was in primary school, where I did more cross-country, relay (400m) and 800m. Athletics was my nickname! And it grew with a passion until now. But I only started running marathons and Trails and ultra-marathons about seven years ago, as my longest distances.
RW: How do you get the most out of running? And how do you balance it with such a full work schedule?
CP: To be honest my schedule <itals>is very hectic, and I always have a to-do list; because not only am I a medical scientist and a runner, but I’m involved in multiple leadership positions, and I’m an ambassador to charity organisations.
I’m very disciplined though, and I prioritise, from what’s most important to the least important. So to balance my work and running, I make sure I run in the early mornings or in the late afternoons (between 5 and 7, morning or evening). And I do indoor exercises after all my runs.
Dr Caroline Pule’s 2020 Personal Bests