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Current Students

Name: Innocent Makasa
Specialisation: Forensic Genetics 
Thesis title: Forensic DNA population study to establish autosomal-, Y-, and X-STR allele frequencies for the Zambian population
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield, and Dr Ray Handema 


Zambia’s use of forensic DNA evidence in resolving crime has remained rudimentary, and there is no established population database in place. This makes statistical interpretation of DNA results challenging, and the generated DNA evidence falling short of the generally acceptable standard, as set by the ruling in R v Doheny and Adams (1997) I Cr. App. R 369. This study therefore, is aimed at assessing the distribution of forensically-relevant microsatellite loci in respect of the autosomal STR, X-STR, and the Y-STR, in the Zambian population, in order to establish the respective background allelic frequency databases for the country. This anonymised DNA data will enable statistical evaluation of DNA evidence in future forensic casework. The study will take on a quantitative, cross-sectional study design.  The sample population will include 1500 volunteers, above the age of 18, unrelated, and randomly sampled from across the 9 major ethnolinguistic groups. Inner check (buccal) swabs have already been collected using the EasiCollect plus device after informed consent was obtained. This was done after ethics approval obtained from the Tropical Diseases Research Centre (IRB number: 0000291). In this study, samples will be analysed by direct PCR, and amplicons by capillary electrophoresis to generate the; autosomal -, X Chromosomal-, and Y Chromosomal- microsatellite loci. The statistical analysis of the respective microsatellite loci will be performed by Arlequin software version 3.5 to assess forensic and population parameters. This data will constitute the first forensic genetics population data for Zambia and will contribute substantially towards the use of DNA in resolving criminal and civil disputes in the country.
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: Donna-Lee Martin
Specialising: Forensic Genetics
Thesis title: DNA-based human identification: Investigation into enabling massively parallel sequencing in forensic casework in South Africa.
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield
The occurrence of unidentified remains at forensic mortuaries remains a burden in South Africa. Current DNA-based methods used to identify these remains is based on the analysis of short tandem repeats (STRs) using PCR and capillary electrophoresis. However, these traditional processes have limitations regarding the discriminatory power that they are able to provide, particularly when applied to degraded DNA. This limits the success of identification of compromised human remains. Globally, massively parallel sequencing (MPS) has emerged as a technique that can be used to overcome these limitations. Therefore, in preparation for implementation of MPS in forensic casework in South Africa, this study aims to develop an MPS workflow as applied to reference and casework samples. To this end, large-scale sequence-based population data will be generated, which is highly lacking in South Africa. The data generated in this study will contribute to the improvement of the discriminatory power of current human identification techniques used in South Africa and will evaluate MPS as an alternative for processing challenging samples, which are frequently encountered at forensic mortuaries in South Africa.
Name: Kate Reid
Specialising: Forensic Medicine
Thesis title: Forensic Human identification: what works and where can improvements be made? Meta-analysis of current identification procedures at a forensic mortuary in Cape Town, South Africa.
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield
Forensic human identification is a key aspect of any medico-legal investigation, whereby the identity of an individual is confirmed. This carries value in both the social and criminal justice sectors. Methods related to the performance of forensic human identification are fast developing and changing. Unfortunately, these advances are not always feasible, economical, or easily accessible. As such the number of decedents remaining unidentified each year places a large burden on forensic facilities internationally. Previous research conducted at Salt River Mortuary (Observatory, Cape Town) found that on average 9.2% of total caseload remains unidentified each year (Reid et al 2020). To contextualise these cases, the current research study focuses on reviewing methods of identification implemented for all cases admitted to Salt River Mortuary, both identified and unidentified. The research aims to provide a standardised guideline on forensic human identification that can assist the forensic community on a local, national, and international level.


Name: Abduraghmaan Fisher
Specialising: Forensic Genetics
Thesis title: The use of next generation sequencing in the forensic DNA profiling of burnt teeth
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield and Mr Calvin Mole
Many cases of unidentified human remains involved severely decomposed, burnt and skeletonised remains, which make visual identification difficult. Most times the only option is to use DNA analysis to identify the remains, with the only extractable DNA sources being bones and teeth. In South Africa, the frequent occurrences of shack fires in informal settlements, as well as wildfires, claim the lives of many victims annually. These fires spread quickly and reach high temperatures, leaving remains visually unrecognisable. These remains are therefore candidates for DNA analysis. Obtaining usable DNA is challenging in these cases but is sometimes the only method and hope for identification. It is therefore necessary for investigators to explore the use of new methods and better technology to analyse the DNA recovered from such remains. Next generation sequencing (NGS) is a fairly new tool being utilised in forensics for this reason, as it has shown success in the analysis of DNA recovered from highly degraded samples. 
This study aims to evaluate and optimise the use of next generation sequencing in the forensic DNA profiling of burnt teeth, to aid in the identification of human remains.


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: 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: 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: 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: Tyrian Laubscher
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Protocol Development for Recovery and Handling of Forensic Entomology and Taphonomic Evidence During Death Scene Investigations.
Supervisors: Dr Marise Heyns
Scenes associated with entomological evidence may require extra handling and documentation with regards to secondary evidence and information that is required for the analysis and reporting of the death scene investigation. This is especially the case when decomposition is in an advanced stage and a forensic pathologist may need the assistance of a forensic entomologist to understand circumstances around death, such as the estimation of the post-mortem interval (PMI). The thorough and efficient retrieval of entomological evidence, along with decomposed human remains, is crucial for a comprehensive investigation. This includes the documentation of insects or other arthropods, the preservation of their condition, and further supplementary information. There is currently no standardised protocol in South Africa for the recovery and handling of entomological evidence associated with decomposed human remains, which also takes into consideration the associated challenges or risks. The primary aim of this study is to investigate the current methods used by Salt River Forensic Pathology Laboratory (SRFPL) to recover, handle, document, and transport decomposed human remains and the associated insects, including challenges or risks faced. The secondary aim is to use the gathered data to develop a standardised protocol to be used in future by SRFPL and other Forensic Pathology Services (FPS) in South Africa.
Name: Wene Bhengu
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Investigation of a founder genetic variant in South African SUDI cases and background population
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield
Sudden unexpected death of an infant (SUDI)is when an infant less than 1 year of age demises rapidly and the cause of death is initially not apparent. Previous studies have found that unexplained SUDI cases may be due to cardiac channelopathies, which are usually only detected if a molecular autopsy is done. The University of Cape Town has an ongoing study investigating genetic variants in SUDI cases (HREC: 445/2015). The South African founder variant, KCNQ1 c.1022C>T, is associated with a severe type of congenital long QT syndrome and was found in 26 out of 176 SUDI cases previously investigated. However, in order to interpret these data, we need to know how frequent this variant is in the background population. Currently, there is a lack of background allele frequency data for this variant for the South African population, therefore this observation cannot be interpreted objectively. As such, the primary objective of this study is to genotype the founder variant in 179 South African control individuals, with the aim of establishing background allele frequency data. The secondary objective is to confirm the presence of the variant, where applicable, using the gold-standard method of Sanger sequencing. Lastly, significance of the frequency of the founder variant in this whole cohort will be determined with statistical analysis. 
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.
Name: Ogheneochuko Oghenechovwen
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: A retrospective study investigating risk factors for sudden unexpected death in the young.
Supervisor: Dr Laura Heathfield
Sudden unexpected death in the young (SUDY) is the unforeseen and rapid fatal episode of an individual aged 1 to 40 years old. Little is known about the burden of SUDY at Salt River Mortuary, as well as the risk factors pertaining to this population group. Understanding risk factors for SUDY will allow for targeted interventions to be developed.  This study aims to primarily explore the risk factors of SUDY cases admitted into Salt River Mortuary from 2010 and 2015. 
Name: Dirk Hamadziripi
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: A retrospective study investigating risk factors for sudden unexpected death in the young.
Supervisor: Dr Laura Heathfield
In South Africa, there is a paucity of information reported on the prevalence and characteristics of sudden death in the young. It is necessary to understand the characteristics of sudden death in order to not only write the appropriate death certificate, but also to provide vital genetic information for the family and future generations. In this study we address this knowledge gap and review the post mortem investigations performed to formulate cause of death.  In addition to reporting the characteristics of sudden death in the young, this study may demonstrate the need and importance of a systematic and standardized protocol for investigating sudden death. The aim of this study is to analyse the scope of post mortem investigations performed in cases of sudden death in the young (SUDY) at Salt River Forensic Pathology Services between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2015. 
Name: Céleste Leggett
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: Sex estimation of unidentified human remains: Concordance between morphometric anthropological assessment and DNA analysis
Supervisor: Dr Laura Heathfield and A/Prof Victoria Gibbon
The forensic identification of deceased individuals remains an increasing problem both globally and in South Africa, affecting forensic practitioners, the legal system, and the decedents’ families. Identification of human remains becomes particularly challenging in cases of skeletonised remains. Sex determination forms a fundamental part of identifying unknown deceased individuals. There are multiple ways to estimate the sex of human remains; most commonly in forensics, it is done by anthropological analysis and DNA testing. Several studies have reported inconsistency between sex results of anthropological analysis and DNA testing. Additionally, we have also encountered this in a local forensic case (Finaughty et al., 2020), which has prompted the need to investigate the agreement of sex results between anthropological and DNA analysis in a larger South African population. This study aims to assess the concordance of biological sex results between traditional anthropological methods and newer DNA methods.
Name: Rumbidzai Lorraine S. Chonyera
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: A retrospective analysis of fatal ground-level falls and falls from a height: A 5-year review.
Supervisor: Calvin Mole
Blunt force injuries are common whenever people encounter blunt objects or broad surfaces. Such injuries are common in falls, motor vehicle collisions and assault cases. Falls are fast becoming a global burden and have been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the second leading cause of accidental deaths worldwide. They are also a common method seen in suicide cases. Extensive research illustrates concern for the mortality and disability rates predominant in the older population identifying their risks and how to better avoid or manage falls or subsequent injuries when they occur. However, in the field of forensics, specialists are concerned with the injuries sustained in terms of pattern, type, frequency, and intensity. This is important, especially in death investigations were the cause and manner of deaths need to be established. Currently, Africa has a paucity of studies investigating the different distinctive features of differing falls in a local forensic context. This study, therefore, aims to conduct a retrospective descriptive study to analyse the demographic characteristics, prevalence and injuries sustained by victims of ground-level falls and falls from a height, focusing on the features that can be used to distinguish between the two.
Name: Masego Sebolai
Specialisation: Biomedical Forensic Science
Thesis title: The use of histological methods to distinguish between the burned remains of human and non-human bone. 
Supervisor: Calvin Mole
Forensic anthropologists are often asked to determine the origin (human vs non-human) of bone fragments. It has previously been demonstrated that histological methods examining the morphological differences in the microstructure of bone may be useful in such analyses. Little research has been conducted to determine if it is possible to distinguish between the burned remains of human and non-human bone using histological methods. Heat induced changes may occur during prolonged exposure to heat which could alter or destroy microstructures in bone. The objectives are as follows: 1. Compare differences in microstructure morphology of unburned bone between different species. 2. Determine if prolonged exposure to heat of varying temperatures alters the microstructural morphology of bone. 3. Determine if it is possible to distinguish between burned bone samples of different species through histological methods.


BSc Hons:
Name: Aqeelah Salie
Specialising: Forensic Genetics
Thesis title: Evaluation of an optimised DNA extraction protocol for nail samples obtained from deceased individuals
Supervisors: Dr Laura Heathfield, Kate Reid, Tracy Bennett 
As part of a medico-legal investigation, a decedent is required to be identified, although this is not always achieved. When standard methods of identification (visual or fingerprinting) are not possible, other scientific means are requested. DNA analysis is commonly implemented in such instances. While blood remains the gold standard sample type for these analyses, it is not always available for collection, poses various health risks and requires specialist training for collection. As such the current research project aims to evaluate the applicability of an optimised DNA extraction protocol from nail samples in a forensic post-mortem setting for downstream molecular analyses.