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16 October 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Kyla Dooley, runner-up in this year’s Three-minute thesis competition, wants to pursue a career working alongside police enforcement, using her knowledge of forensics to solve criminal cases and convict perpetrators.

When rapes and sexual assaults are committed, DNA evidence can play a large role in convicting the offenders. DNA evidence collected from sexual crimes can, according to Kyla Dooley, often be tricky to analyse.

Kyla has just completed her master’s degree, specialising in Forensic Genetics, at the University of the Free State (UFS). She not only thrives in this field – graduating at the top of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences in 2018 when she was awarded the Dean’s Medal – but her work also brought her the runner-up position in this year’s Three-minute thesis competition. 

She talked about her research on the use of male-specific DNA in the analysis of DNA evidence collected after crimes of a sexual nature have been committed.

Explaining her research, Kyla elaborates: “In most cases, the victim is female, while the offender is male. Therefore, the evidence is often a mixture of male and female DNA and this can make it difficult to analyse the male DNA and match it to a male suspect.”

She believes the solution to this is to target male-specific DNA in analysis. “This eliminates all female DNA and simplifies the process,” says Kyla.

“Unfortunately, male-specific DNA technology is not currently used in South Africa, because the DNA regions tested to date haven’t shown much success in distinguishing between males in our population,” Kyla points out.

“The goal is now to use DNA evidence, to match it to a suspect, and have the confidence that it came from him and only him. Or else defence lawyers could argue that it came from someone else in the population,” she says.

Improving DNA evidence

Therefore, Kyla’s research focused on evaluating a new group of male-specific DNA regions, which are to be tested yet, to see if it would be a viable option for use in South Africa. 

“I achieved this by collecting DNA samples from men on campus, processing them to obtain DNA profiles, and then determining how well these regions can distinguish between the men. The results of my research demonstrate the potential of these DNA regions to improve the use of DNA evidence when investigating sexual assaults in South Africa,” says Kyla.

She believes her study can play a role in increasing the conviction rate of sexual offenders, which could lead to a reduction in South Africa’s alarmingly high rape statistic. 

“Everyone in South Africa is affected by this horrific crime in some way or another, so the benefits of this would be widespread,” she says.

Solving crimes

Although Kyla will one day pursue further studies, she is ready for the next stage in her life. “I am in the process of applying for jobs and getting ready to dive into the real world. I’ll definitely be pursuing a career working alongside police enforcement to solve criminal cases and convict perpetrators of such crimes. Working for the NYPD in the USA or Scotland Yard in the UK is the ultimate dream job,” she says.

“I chose my field not only because the forensics world absolutely fascinates me, but also because I want to make a difference. I want to play a role in getting justice for those affected by violent crimes. One simple process in a forensic scientist’s everyday routine could be a life changer for a victim of crime,” believes Kyla.

 

 


News Archive

Two research chairs awarded to UFS women
2015-09-15


Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Two professors at the University of the Free State (UFS) have just been chosen as recipients of research chairs by the National Research Foundation’s South African Research Chair Initiative.

The research chairs are a massive financial injection for research in each of the relevant disciplines – that of Profs Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela from the Centre for Trauma, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation Studies at the UFS, and Felicity Burt from the Department of Medical Microbiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Profs Gobodo-Madikizela and Burt are two of 42 female researchers in the country receiving research chairs as an initiative to give due recognition to women in research.

Profs Hendrik Swart, from our Departement of Physics and Melany Walker, Director, Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development, each also holds research chairs by the NRF. A third research chair has also been granted to the UFS Department of Plant Sciences for the research in field crops.


Prof Felicity Burt

The work of Prof Burt’s research chair is to investigate medically significant vector-borne and zoonotic viruses currently circulating; to define associations between these viruses and specific disease manifestations that have previously not been described in our region, to increase awareness of these pathogens; to further our understanding of host immune responses, which should facilitate development of novel treatments or vaccines and drug discovery.

Prof Gobodo-Madikizela, who has received international recognition for her work on forgiveness studies, will use this research chair to investigate historical trauma within two African contexts – those of South Africa and Rwanda. She hopes to gain insight into the role that memory plays in the formation of the experience of trauma, and to bring about healing of the trauma.

Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research at the UFS, expressed her pride on the announcement.

“We are extremely proud of the national recognition these two outstanding women researchers received.  The UFS strives for research excellence, and the five current NRF research chairs, as well as two NRF A-graded researchers who are at the forefront of their disciplines globally, indicates our continued commitment to innovating, relevant, and high-impact research.  We are excited about the progress of the past two years to position the UFS as a national leader in research.”

 

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