With determination, a strong support network and a conscious balancing of academics and play, 26-year-old Nicola Steinhaus graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with both an MBChB and a master’s in public health.
In December 2018, Steinhaus was one of two graduates who received their intercalated degrees. She obtained her MBChB with distinction in the basic sciences and clinical sciences, and the degree with first-class honours. She also obtained her master’s with distinction.
All four were part of UCT’s Clinical Scholars Programme which began in 2011. The programme was spearheaded by the late Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi, who Steinhaus refers to as having been an “incredibly supportive” and “wonderful, kind” person.
According to the Department of Medicine’s website, the purpose of the programme “is to train and inspire a new generation of clinical researchers to replace the ageing pool of largely white male and white academics in health science faculties, and to increase the pool of clinical researchers in general”.
“I think the programme is great and will create doctors that forge a connection between clinical practice on the ground and research in the labs,” said Steinhaus.
The programme is “targeted at the most able, talented and motivated students with the potential to become leaders in their field”. Steinhaus has proved to be one of them.
“I feel incredibly privileged to be in a profession where we really can change lives, and that drives me to be better and try harder every day.”
Toward public health
Initially, medicine was a natural next step for Steinhaus rather than her life-long passion.
She excelled at Rustenburg Girls’ High School, finishing matric as dux scholar. Having enjoyed biology and with parents who are both in the medical field, it seemed an obvious choice to study medicine.
“I can’t say I came into medicine wanting to save the world – I definitely wasn’t that altruistic at 18 years old!” she said.
But she has since grown to love her chosen profession, particularly its human aspect.
“I feel incredibly privileged to be in a profession where we really can change lives, and that drives me to be better and try harder every day,” she said.
By her third year, Steinhaus’s public health journey had begun to pick up. It was in this field, with its challenges and opportunities, that she found her “perfect path”.
While working on a project that combined medical biochemistry/infectious diseases and immunology, Steinhaus was exposed to basic research principles, study design, biostatistics and public health. While the first two were “incredibly useful”, it was the last two that led to her master’s.
She also found great value in doing the master’s degree with the MBChB.
“I feel they complemented each other and worked synergistically to give me better insight into healthcare in our country,” she said.
Early on in her medical training, Steinhaus became frustrated with South Africa’s healthcare system.
“I felt it was always very curative rather than preventative. We were always running around trying to treat diseases in their end-stages, rather than investing in measures to lessen the occurrence of disease in the first place.”
She has since committed herself to understanding more about healthcare systems and implementing necessary changes on a population level. She is especially interested in infectious diseases.
“We were always running around trying to treat diseases in their end-stages, rather than investing in measures to lessen the occurrence of disease in the first place.”
“They form an extremely large burden of disease in our country, and are largely preventable.”
Finding the balance
Pursuing one degree is tough enough on its own; pursuing two can seem impossible. But for Steinhaus, doing many things at once is part of who she is.
Along with her “two-in-one” degree, she was a tutor in medical biochemistry and for mathematics with Brightsparkz. She served IkamvaYouth for two years and UCT’s Golden Future Project, and was with the Studentsʼ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) health division from 2012 to 2014.
As if that isn’t enough, she made time to join the UCT Running Club and has finished seven Two Oceans Half Marathons since starting at UCT in 2012.
“My parents have always thought I’m a bit crazy for trying to do so many things at once,” Steinhaus conceded.
“But they have always been very supportive, which has helped me maximise the opportunities which I have been fortunate enough to have been given.”
She names her high-achieving family, network of loved ones, clinical partner Emily Chetwin and her master’s supervisors Sean Wasserman and Mary-Ann Davies as significant contributors to her support network.
She said they played an enormous role in her success, and she encouraged other students to draw on their own networks – whether it’s friends, family, colleagues or pets.
“They will pick you up and keep you going when you are feeling completely overwhelmed and lost.”
Asked what other advice she has for those struggling with their workload or wanting to follow a similar path, Steinhaus said it’s about joy, time management and balance.
“It’s only really worth [it] if you are really enjoying it. I’ve always been a follower of the idea ‘if it doesn’t add joy to your life, chuck it out’.”
She calls time-management skills “essential”, and maximises her spare moments by catching up on emails and readings. But balance is key.
“I always made sure to keep doing activities that made me happy and kept me sane though. I promised myself that if I ever stopped doing those things because of work, it had gone too far.”
“I promised myself that if I ever stopped doing those things because of work, it had gone too far.”
The journey ahead
Working to maintain the balance between the work and hobbies she loves is part of Steinhaus’s plan for the future. Since graduating, sheʼs taken some “me time” and has been enjoying the outdoors. She recently started her medical internship at Groote Schuur Hospital and is doing her paediatrics rotation.
“After that, I am aiming to do my community service year in a more rural setting and get a better understanding of our healthcare system outside of the relatively well-resourced Western Cape.”
As for her longer-term plans, Steinhaus said she hopes to merge her interests and to engage in “big-system changes while still interacting with patients on a one-on-one basis”.
“I do know I am definitely keen to go more into infectious disease prevention and control.”
With her various interests, hobbies and dreams, there’s a lot more juggling in her future. But instead of letting it overwhelm her, she’s thrilled about the journey ahead.
“Right now, I am just super excited about all of the possibilities and open doors,” said Steinhaus.
“And I’m just as clueless as anyone about which one I’ll choose to take.”
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