Facebook Q&A: Ask an Expert with David Swanepoel

The DNA Project hosted its first ever live Q & A event via our Facebook page on the 19th of March 2014 with fellow DNA awareness trainer and Human Identification Specialist David Swanepoel regarding the topic of forensic DNA analysis.

David Swanepoel – Human Identification Specialist

The following is a full write-up of all questions that were asked by the various participants during the hour-long online event:

Q: DNA and Forensics is a very exciting area to be in. What are the qualifications required to get involved in:

1. DNA testing?
2. Crime Scene Investigation?

It certainly is an exciting field and is growing in leaps and bounds.

1. For DNA testing, it will be necessary to have some molecular biology experience – this could be a degree in molecular biology, or forensic science specifically. I will post further on the courses available in South Africa.

2. For crime scene investigations, it is recommended that you have some qualification in the area of crime scene analysis that you will be working in, i.e. if you are going to collect DNA at the scene, you should have some molecular biology knowledge, if you are working with chemicals/clandestine labs – some knowledge in chemistry would be advantageous. The SAPS has on the job training for crime scene personnel.

Q: I’m a 2nd year student in molecular and cell biology and chemistry at Wits. I want to be a forensic scientist. Any tips? Are there any work or study opportunities available abroad? What would be the best way to go?

You certainly are in a good position in that you will possess both the molecular biology and chemistry skills required. I would suggest that you take a look at the honours programmes offered by the University of the Witwatersrand, or if you wish to explore further, by the University of the Free State, University of Cape Town or University of the Western Cape.

I would advise continuing with a post-graduate qualification – it is up to you whether you want to follow the analytical chemistry route or the DNA/molecular biology route. Job opportunities in the criminal field are only offered by the SAPS but other private laboratories such as Lancet Laboratories are involved with human identification work as well.

Q: Are there any forms of internships available within the SAPS forensic department?

Unfortunately due to contamination issues, as well as the sensitive nature of criminal casework, it will not be possible for you to job shadow anyone at the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory. You could however contact one of the private laboratories to see if they would have anything available. This would give you some idea only of the type of laboratory work you would be involved with. Some private laboratories include: Pathcare, Unistel, GENEDiagnostics and Lancet.

Q: How up in the world of forensic DNA is South Africa?

South Africa is among the top in the world when it comes to DNA analysis. A new act the “DNA Act” has recently been signed into law and it allows for the technology to be used more effectively. We have two great state biology labs, which unfortunately are tasked with processing a massive amount of samples on a daily basis.

Q: Are there any community groups that I could get involved with in the DNA area where I do not require any formal qualifications but where I can be of service to the community in the DNA are (and possibly learn the ins and outs via experience as opposed to formal education)

The DNA Project has done a great deal of work with community groups such as local community policing forums and neighbourhood watch groups. There is always a need for these groups to be aware of the use of DNA for crime investigation and they are now actively learning how to deal with crime scenes and anti-contamination measures at scenes. You could join such an organisation and engage with their training and awareness programmes in order to improve experience in this area.

Q: Is DNA from a crime scene kept in a database so as to determine if the same criminal commits a subsequent crime? As such, he can be nabbed on both crimes.

Yes, the DNA profiles from all crime scenes are kept on the National DNA Database. This is used to link back to previous crime and reference samples, as well as new profiles that are loaded onto the database.

These samples and profiles from the crime scenes are kept indefinitely.

Q: As a white South African, is it possible to determine my British ancestry? I.e. Irish or Scottish or both!

Yes, it is certainly possible to broadly determine one’s ancestry using mitochondrial DNA analysis. This involves sequencing your mitochondrial DNA and matching that sequence against a database of many sequences that provides an indication of your ‘haplotype group’. This roughly links you back to previous generations through the maternal line.

There are few organisations offering such a service. I would start at the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand if you are interested in this analysis.


Q: I would like to pursue this. I guess the paternal line is not possible?

Analyses can be done using the Y chromosome; however this is only passed down along the male lineage and thus cannot be used for females. The Y chromosome is also prone to a greater amount of mutational variation and is difficult to use in this respect.

Q: I would like to find out about job opportunities in DNA analysis field and as a forensic scientist. I would like to pursue a career in this and am currently studying BSC in Biochemistry and Physiology, and would like to know more or less the requirements for a job in DNA analysis and as a forensic scientist? Will this degree be enough to apply? Also how can I gain work experience in a lab? This career path has always been my dream.

Your qualifications are also suitable for working in the forensic DNA field. If you have done any genetics courses as well, that will help too. A forensic science career for criminal work in South Africa is currently only offered by the SAPS through their Criminal Record and Forensic Science Service division. There is a large amount of on-the-job training that takes place and one is required to pass competency and proficiency tests in order to begin working in any of the processes.

Unfortunately, you will not be able to spend time at the lab job shadowing or as an intern due to sensitive nature of the casework and possible contamination risks, however the analysts at the lab are always willing to discuss their careers and what the job entails. Lab experience can be gained through a postgraduate qualification (in forensic genetics) and at certain private laboratories that are involved with human identification work, such as Lancet Laboratories or PathCare.

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