ISHI 26: Under the Microscope – Vanessa Lynch

Vanessa has very kindly been invited back to present a talk entitled “Investigation of the Muldersdrift Serial Rapist” at this year’s upcoming ISHI (International Symposium on Human Identification) conference being held in Grapevine, Texas, in the United States from the 12th – 15th of October.

The following is a short interview with Vanessa by ISHI for their “Under the Microscope” guest speaker feature.

How did you come to work in the field of forensics/DNA?
Bizarrely it was actually through the lack of DNA evidence being collected on my father’s crime scene that brought me to this work – that coupled with the words of Prof Berndt Brinkmann, a forensic scientist in Germany who is the father of a close friend of mine – after my father was murdered, Prof Brinkmann told me to send him any DNA evidence or even just evidence from my fathers crime scene to his lab in Germany so that he could test it for possible traces of DNA. Sadly all the evidence had been discarded – clothing, the bottle the killers had been drinking from and blood of the killers on the perimeter fence which was not collected. This  was then followed by the Prof’s question ‘does SA have a DNA database?’ – that really changed everything for me as I knew then that was exactly what we needed in SA: a DNA database coupled with greater crime scene awareness!

If you woke up tomorrow and this field no longer existed, what would you choose for a career?
I would apply to the United Nations to continue philanthropic work on a global scale.

What new technologies are you most excited about or where do you see the field heading in the next 10 years?
Bearing in mind that SA is still lagging behind somewhat in utilising the amazing developments in DNA profiling being applied in international criminal justice systems, I would say that currently for me, the most exciting technology in a  SA context would be the ability to differentiate between mixed profiles  – we have a huge problem with gang rape in SA and this would change the way in which these types of cases are resolved.

What was the most challenging or bizarre case that you’ve worked on?
I don’t work with cases as such, but have been exposed to many different cases through the work that I do. Probably the most bizarre case was when someone called me and told me that the police had found pieces of his father in a suitcase and was seeking advice as to what to do.

What person would you say has had the biggest influence on your life?
My father. It was because of his death that I now do what I do but also because of what he taught me in my life when he was alive that I believe I possessed the ability to do what I did after he was killed. The work of the DNA Project has changed me irrevocably in a way that would not have happened had my father still been alive. I am not saying that I would not have changed that but because it did happen, I know that this was what I was meant to do with my life.

Can you think of a specific example where ISHI has helped you in your career or with a case?
Without a doubt my first visit to ISHI last year exceeded my expectations in terms of what I learnt about this technology and the field of forensic DNA profiling, albeit I am not a scientist! The advances being made in DNA profiling insofar it relates to crime detection and resolution and the software available to achieve this are quite literally mind-blowing. Learning from a forum such as ISHI is unprecedented and it has  provided me with the ability to think strategically on how best to focus the work of the DNA Project in a way which will have the most impact going forward. Learning from other jurisdictions’ experiences and taking those lessons back to SA has helped enormously.

Who in the audience would benefit most from your talk?
It’s difficult to say, but because SA has such a high crime rate, possibly all disciplines would be able to calculate how best they would have approached the situation and what their result would have been or be based on what facilities and technologies are available to them at present. It will possibly provide the audience with some insight into their own situation and maybe even enable them to offer SA advice on how best to approach certain cases?

If you won the lottery, what would you do with the winnings?
Approach it in much the same way as I approached the work I had to do in the DNA Project: how do you eat an elephant? Bit by Bit – I would break it down into all the areas where I felt it was needed and apply it accordingly. I would love to be able to use it less as a straight donation than as a means to empower people to make a difference. I would actively seek ways to do that. And I would definitely use some of it to travel the world with my family!

If you were to have a theme song, what would it be?
An interesting question! We are about to look into the possibility of a local rapper in SA compiling a rap song about crime and how the culprits got away because the crime scene was disturbed …and of course how this could change if we learnt that we must not disturb a crime scene etc etc – its a great way of reaching and teaching communities through  song – a medium that SA communities love and resonate with. So watch this space and hopefully we will have a theme song with a difference that will make a difference to play at ISHI!

What would your ideal vacation be?
All new destinations are exciting for me, even if it’s not a vacation; so I can’t really say I have an ideal vacation – but my travels are usually quite energetic – I am not one to lie on the beach all day, however beautiful!


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