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Current Students

Name: Calvin Mole
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Analysis of the effects of post-mortem burning on skeletal blunt force trauma
Supervisor: Dr Marise Heyns


Trauma in one form or another is unfortunately a daily occurrence. It sometimes occurs that individuals die as a result of sustained trauma and are subsequently burned due to natural fire, or as an attempt by perpetrators to destroy evidence, or more rarely, are burned as a method of murder. Such scenarios present a difficult interpretive task for forensic anthropologists and/or forensic pathologists as it is necessary to have a full understanding of the biomechanics associated with bone fractures in both traumatic and fire related events. Without such an understanding, heat induced fractures may be difficult to differentiate from traumatic fractures. This is further complicated as prolonged exposure to increased temperatures can cause shrinkage, fragmentation, warping and additional fracturing of bone, all of which can alter or destroy pre-existing trauma. Currently, such analysis is hampered by the limited scope of research pertaining to the effect of exposure to heat (for varied duration) on pre-existing bone trauma. The limited research in this area, particularly relating to burn duration, necessitates the need for controlled laboratory studies to gain an understanding of the mechanism of alteration and the factors involved with such alteration. The current study thus aims to ascertain the effect of burning on pre-existing bone trauma through the systematic analysis of macro and microscopic morphological changes in bone trauma associated with burning at various temperatures and durations.
Name: Wilmari Uys
Specialisation: Forensic Entomology
Thesis title: Investigating age-related intra-puparial characteristics of necrophagous fly pupae to improve the accuracy of post-mortem interval estimation
Supervisor: Dr Marise Heyns


Forensic entomologists make use of insects associated with a corpse to determine the post-mortem interval (PMI). PMI estimation usually relies on the use of insect developmental data i.e. age, of the oldest insect specimen found at the scene. Dipteran species such as blow flies (Diptera: Calliphoridae) are commonly the first insects to colonise a body or carrion and are therefore generally used for ageing and subsequent PMI estimation. Historically, research involving the use of insect age in order to estimate PMI has largely focused on the larval life-stage. Roughly 50% of the blow fly’s immature life-stage is, however, spend in the puparial stage. Therefore, in cases where pupae are found, they represent the oldest specimen and should be used to estimate PMI. This main focus of this study is to obtain reliable morphological markers to aid in the determination of Diptera age during the puparial period and thereby advance the reliability of PMI estimation using pupae.
Name: Kyle Kulenkampff
Specialisation: Forensic Entomology
Thesis title: Forensic DNA barcoding of blow flies (Diptera: Calliphoridae) for post-mortem interval estimation
Supervisor: Dr Marise Heyns and Dr Laura Heathfield 
Determining species identity in an important aspect in forensic entomological practice, particularly for post-mortem interval (PMI) determination. The identification of congeneric species can be challenging when utilising morphological markers alone. DNA barcoding is an alternative method of species identification. However, it relies on having available reference sequences. Within the Western Cape of South Africa; two previous studies (Cooke et al., 2018; Kulenkampff, 2019) established the foundations for utilising DNA barcodes for species identification. However, the current dataset is not functional for use in medico-legal investigations, needing increased sample numbers and further inclusion of forensically relevant species to increase the statistical power so that congeneric species can be identified. This focus of this study is to establish a cohesive database of DNA reference sequences for locally relevant Calliphoridae species within the Western Cape of South Africa. Furthermore, once the database is established this study will assess the database as a tool for local forensically relevant Calliphoridae identification, as well as, compare the local database versus a global representative.


Name: Adeyemi Adetimehin
Specialising: Forensic Entomology
Thesis title: Insect fauna and their pattern of succession on decomposing stillborn pig carcasses: Implications for Forensic Entomology in Western Cape, South Africa
Supervisors: Dr Marise Heyns and Dr Devin Finaughty
Over the years, Forensic Pathologists have been able to estimate the time of death (post-mortem interval) of an individual using biological parameters such as post-mortem cooling, lividity, RNA and DNA degradation, and/or changes in the chemical constituents of the body, amongst many others. However, most of these parameters are unreliable at later post-mortem stages (> 72 hours). Furthermore, some of these parameters cannot be used in estimating the post-mortem intervals of individuals whose corpses have been burnt and/or mutilated. Consequently, as an alternative, the utilization of insects has been found to be statistically superior and consistent in estimating the post-mortem intervals of individuals after 72 hours. Despite the importance of insects in post-mortem interval estimations, no empirical studies on the abundance, diversity and successional patterns of forensically important insect species at different stages of decomposition in each month/season of the year in the Western Cape Province have been published, and no data is available for the Table Mountain area. Therefore, the focus of this study is on the abundance, diversity and successional patterns of forensically important insect species attracted to stillborn pig carcasses at different stages of decomposition in each month and season of the year in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.


Name: Dr Varushka Bachan
Name: Dr Anez Behari
Name: Dr Tracy Cook
Name: Dr Liza Profitt
Name: Dr Maria Warren


MPhil: Biomedical Forensic Science
Name: Donna-Lee Martin
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Forensic Human Identification: ForenSeq™ DNA Signature Prep kit data analysis and improvement of workflow.
Supervisor: Dr Laura Heathfield
There is an ongoing study in the Molecular Forensics Research group at the University of Cape Town to generate population data for forensic genetics applications. In this project, over 200 samples have undergone Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS) -based DNA profiling using the ForenSeq™ DNA Signature Prep kit. Prior to submission for publication, a data analysis study will be performed for the MPS-based data which entails rigorous quality assessment, the assigning of interpretation thresholds and assigning of alleles, based on international guidelines. Furthermore, where samples showed poor quality, troubleshooting will take place in order to improve the quality of the workflow.
Name: Sefule Anastacia Matlebjane
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Retrospective analysis of infection related deaths of SUDI cases at Salt River Mortuary Supervisor: Dr Laura Heathfield

Sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) is a global burden in both the society and the health sector. South Africa is one of the countries with high rates of infant mortality. Although infection-causing microorganisms are known to cause SUDI, their trends are not yet established in South Africa. Factors such as prematurity, side or prone sleeping, overheating, as well as the male sex of the infant have been associated with an increased risk to infections and SUDI. The aim of the study is to explore the burden and risk factors of infection-related infant death at Salt River mortuary between 1 January 2017 and 31 December 2018.

Name:Lisa Alberts
Specialisation:Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title:Examining external morphological characteristics of Lucilia sericata pupae for age estimation in medico-legal investigations.
Supervisors:Mr Calvin Mole and Dr Marise Heyns

Insects play an important role in the resolution of medico-legal investigations. For various insects, like necrophagous flies, it is vital for their survival to find and colonize a food source such as a decomposing body. This makes it possible to use these insects as evidence in medico-legal investigations.  A crucial part of any medico-legal investigation is estimating the time since death, otherwise known as the post-mortem interval (PMI). Flies undergo different stages of development. Of these immature stages, pupae represent the oldest specimens, which makes them useful in establishing a minimum time since death. Identification and ageing of pupae is currently a challenging process since they all look similar in appearance. Very few studies have been done on pupae for PMI estimation. This study aims to identify reliable morphological markers to aid in a more accurate age estimation of Lucilia Sericata during the pupal stage.

Name: Jonathan Ramonyai
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Retrospective review of gunshot injuries at Salt River Mortuary, Western Cape
Supervisor: Mr Calvin Mole and Dr Marise Heyns

Globally, firearm homicides have become a public health problem. With about 468 000 firearm homicides estimated globally, gunshot injuries are now a major factor leading to death. To date, there is limited information regarding the localisation, number and types of injuries. Therefore, this study will focus on the magnitude and patterns of gunshot injuries and the types of injuries observed.

Name: Tayna Carlisle
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Investigation into the detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in deceased persons in Cape Town
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield and Prof Lorna Martin
In March 2019, the World Health Organization noted the seriousness of the COVID-19 disease, caused by SARS-CoV-2, and declared it as a global pandemic. There are two types of testing that can be performed on suspected COVID-19 cases: the molecular (PCR) test and the serological test, with the latter gaining attention due to its cost-effectiveness and low turn-around time. The SureScreen COVID-19 IgG/IgM Rapid Test Cassette has recently been validated in South Africa and has been approved in other locations worldwide. However, it has yet to be used in a mortuary setting, therefore, using this test, the parameters of testing in the deceased can be investigated. It is currently unknown whether antibodies would degrade over time, what sample type is better for the post-mortem population, and the effect of blood coagulation on the results. Rapid testing in the deceased population could improve the health and safety procedures in the mortuaries as well as provide another tool to aid in the investigation of cause of death. The aim of this pilot study is to explore the use of the SureScreen COVID-19 IgG/IgM Rapid Test Cassette in a deceased population with regards to sample type and post-mortem interval. 
Name: Yuvika Vandayar
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: A retrospective investigation of sudden unexpected death in the young investigated at Salt River Mortuary, Cape Town.
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield
Sudden unexpected death in the young (SUDY) is a tragic event resulting in the fatality of seemingly healthy individuals between the ages of one and 40 years. This project is investigating SUDY that occurred between 01/01/2016 and 31/12/2018 at Salt River Mortuary. Little is known about the demographic profile and risk factors of these cases, hence understanding these factors could lead to targeted interventions for at-risk individuals. Although the cause of death is determined following post-mortem examination in many cases, some remain undetermined. These cases would be ideal candidates for molecular autopsies in the future. Therefore, the objectives seek to determine the number of SUDY during this period, noting demographics, post-mortem details, cause of death outcome and risk factors. Moreover, clinical history and availability of stored samples in non-specific natural, under investigation and undetermined cases will be established to potentially elucidate cause of death and assist in strategising further analyses in the future.
Name: Pearl Oriele Perumal
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Micro-analysis of cranial fracture patterns
Supervisor: Calvin Mole
Over the past decades, cranial blunt force trauma (BFT) has become a global concern. More so with regards to an increase in homicide related cases, especially in South Africa. As such, pathologists often find themselves in a predicament as they cannot provide the court with the circumstantial explanations related to cranial BFT. Whilst several studies exist regarding fracture characteristics and morphologies produced by blunt force trauma, not much is understood regarding the fracture mechanics of cranial bone at a macroscopic level and no research has been conducted on the fracture mechanics of cranial bone at a microscopic level. As such, these detailed descriptions of macro- and microscopic presentations of fractures would aid in reconstructing the type of trauma inflicted, by being able to match specific bone pattern characteristics to various velocities and energies of impact. In essence, this novel study aims to conduct a micro-analysis and describe the fracture mechanics caused by cranial blunt force trauma in the Papio Ursinus (Cape [Chacma] baboon) skull, with objectives to describe the associated fracture surface morphology as a function of mechanical impact data (using scanning electron microscopy [SEM]) and to determine the elemental composition of the bone samples (using energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy [EDX]).
Name: Molatelo Peter
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis Title: Investigating pesticide-related deaths at a dedicated mortuary in Cape Town
Supervisors: Bronwen Davies and Jade Mader
Pesticide use in South Africa is on the increase. This increased pesticide usage has led to increased pesticide-related exposure and poisonings, whether intentional or accidental. The recent spike in pesticide-related poisonings in South Africa has created a need for the development of an effective surveillance system to reduce pesticide-related poisonings, however, under-reporting has led to skewed pesticide-related statistics. Thus, the aim of this of study is to ascertain the prevalence of pesticide fatalities within the west-metropole of the Western Cape and assess the effectiveness of the notification system by determining the notification rate of these cases.
Name: Nastasja van Wyk 
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Establishing bullet reference ranges for common handgun calibers through medical imaging
Supervisors: Dr Marise Heyns, WO Dicks, Col Marius
Measurements of bullets in situ presents challenges in forensic science as the item to be investigated isn’t always within a common or standard matrix. In a recent case, it was alleged that a police officer shot a bystander. The bullet was located in a precarious location behind the right eye under the brain which could not be removed due to serious possible complications. A CT scan was the only way to determine the calibre and type of bullet. It was determined that discrimination between bullets can be completed based on their specific measurements and visual appearances at different orientations. It was found that a combination of measurements for length, diameter and length/diameter ratios are capable of establishing bullet reference ranges for a specific bullet calibre and type that can be used to exclude other bullet calibres and types. However, only one bullet calibre, one manufacturer and one bullet type was used in this study. Therefore, this study will establish a reference ranges for other common handgun bullet calibres regarding their construction. These include bullets of different types and masses and calibres from different manufacturers available on the South African market.
Name: Zemvelo Mnisi
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Post-mortem toxicological analysis of hair in violent fatalities: An investigation into long-term drug exposure
Supervisors: Bronwen Davies, Loyiso Vuko, Kathrina Auckloo
Violence and the injuries that result from it are one of many devastating challenges that many countries face on a daily basis. While countries are affected differently, violence-related injuries continue to be amongst one of the leading causes of death worldwide. In the government of the city of Cape Town, South Africa, has for this reason, identified violence one of the public health priorities. Drugs abuse, among many other factors, has been shown to contribute to the continued existence of violence- a proposition that is supported by toxicological findings in post-mortem cases wherein violence-related injuries resulted in death. In such cases, specimens such as blood, urine and vitreous humour are analysed to obtain information on the acute role of drugs in death. However, not a lot of research has been conducted to investigate how long-term exposure to drugs may contribute to the violent behaviour of the kind seen in places like Cape Town. Hair has become the popular specimen for investigating long-term drug exposure, as it provides a longer window of detection in toxicological analyses and may provide insight into an individual’s history of drug use. This study aims to screen for the presence of drugs of abuse in the victims of violent fatalities in the West Metropole of Cape Town, as a means to pioneer an investigation into the role of long-term drug exposure in the violence seen in the local context.
Name: Thomas Mollett
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Dissertation title: The Bloating Phase: Investigating bloating at sea utilising    an animal model
Supervisors: Dr Marise Heyns and Calvin Mole
The aim of this study is to investigate the bloating phase of decomposition in order to determine what influence it has on the movement and position of human remains in a sea drowning setting.
Name: Jaide Mckriel
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis Title: Profiling Homicides of Adolescents and Young Adults in Cape Town, South Africa
Supervisors: Calvin Mole, Bronwen Davies
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), homicide is defined as an individual having the intent to cause injury or harm resulting in the death of another. In Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa reported the highest rates of homicide (29/100 000, 28.5/100 000 and 26.2/100 000 respectively) in 2015. While there has been a decline in homicidal deaths since 2000 wherein South Africa reported an alarming homicidal rate of 43/100 000 population. The high rates of homicides especially by interpersonal violence within South Africa is burdensome on the public health system as well as the economy. These can be attributed to various factors such as the access to and use of firearms, alcohol and drug misuse, socio-economic status as well as the age group of the individuals.
Name: Thandeka Mehlo
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: The assessment of toxicological markers in the investigation of fire fatalities in Cape Town, South Africa
Supervisors: Bronwen Davis and Katrina Auckloo
The inhalation of smoke, that contains a toxic mixture of gases, seems to be a major contributor to morbidity and mortality of fire victims. Carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) are reported as the major combustion products during fires. The stability of COHb in different sampling vials and at different storage periods and temperature remains unknown. In the context of delayed testing and reporting, this is an important concept to investigate further. In addition, the presence of HCN in fire death in WC has not been investigated and this study aims to bridge that gap. The aim of the study will be to investigate the presence and stability of toxicological markers in fire-fatalities in the local WC context. 
Name: Thandiswa Mkonto
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Exploring the incidence of malpractice suits involving the phrenic and recurrent laryngeal nerves: frequency, anatomical variation and outcome.
Supervisor: Dr Marise Heyns and Kerri Keet
Injury to the recurrent laryngeal nerves during thyroid surgery is one of the most frequent causes of malpractice litigation against surgeons. Occurring in up to 3% surgeries, it results in significant morbidity, ranging from hoarseness to acute airway obstruction. Similarly, a risk of injury to the phrenic nerve exist cardiothoracic surgery, resulting in diaphragmatic paralysis and subsequent respiratory distress. Variations in the anatomy of these nerves have been reported and is of relevance to surgeons. Therefore, the main focus of this research is to determine whether anatomical variations in the course of the recurrent laryngeal and phrenic nerves and to determine whether knowledge of the variations may prevent injury.