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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

UFS doctors fight childhood cancer
2016-09-02

Description: Childhood cancer  Tags: Childhood cancer

Prof David Stones and Dr Jan du Plessis of the
University of Free State’s paediatric oncology ward
are helping little lives, one patient at a time.
Photo: Nonsindiso Qwabe

Of 23 paediatric oncology specialists nationally, Prof David Stones and Dr Jan du Plessis of the University of Free State are the only ones in the province.

Committed to giving holistic care to their patients, the two doctors specialise in all types of childhood cancers, the most common being leukaemia, brain tumour, and nephroblastoma.

They describe the childhood malignancy as a lethal disease, unpredictability being its harshest trait. “With cancer, you can just never know. It precipitates and multiplies, and leads to the failure of other organs. You can just always hope, and keep trying,” said Du Plessis.

The paediatric oncology unit of the Universitas Academic Hospital, their unit, is the liveliest floor in the entire building. It is also the third busiest in South Africa, serving a demographic that spans the Free State and Northern Cape, as well as parts of North West, Eastern Cape and Lesotho.

Each year, the unit receives more than 100 new childhood cancer patients. In 2015, the unit had 113 newly diagnosed patients, an increase from 93 in 2014.

Lack of knowledge poses a serious challenge
According to the two experts, the lack of insight and awareness of the disease remain a big challenge to fighting it. “It is frustrating. Parents and family members don’t know anything about it. Nurses and doctors aren’t always clinically trained to pick up the early warning signs. By the time a diagnosis is made, life and death is on a 50% margin,” Stones said.

Poverty, a lack of resources, overcrowding and a range of health issues are other factors that have a profound effect on the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

Making a contribution that will last
With a desire to see an improvement on life outcomes in the health sector, the team is focusing on educating the country’s doctors of tomorrow. Their unit is the only one in the country that actively involves medical students in an oncology unit, giving them practical experience and exposure to the individual cases each patient presents. They have also produced a substantial amount of research literature on childhood malignancies in South Africa as a developing country.

Driven by passion to see a better South Africa
The doctors are passionate about the work they do, and remain hopeful there will be a change in the incidence of childhood cancer   not just in decreased levels of the disease, but also in the overall state of well-being of young South Africans.

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