Forensic course a hit

13 September 2004

A course offered jointly by UCT and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has introduced students to a range of forensic topics, including the recovery of information from skeletonised remains and the application of DNA technology to the identification and relatedness of individuals.

Presented in 2003 and again in 2004 as part of the honours programme in UCT's health sciences faculty and the department of biotechnology at UWC, the forensic module also allowed students to engage with a private forensic science practitioner and two inspectors from the police forensic unit.

A common misconception is that forensics is the investigation of death. But course coordinator and Associate Professor Alan Morris from UCT's human biology department said by definition anything "forensic" simply means pertaining to the law.

"Forensic accountancy, forensic psychiatry, forensic ballistics and, of course, forensic medicine are all specialities used to investigate breeches of the law, but not necessarily murder. It's not just about conducting a post-mortem."

According to Morris, the nature of the forensic sciences allows for cross-faculty collaboration and he has invited UCT colleagues with an interest in this area to contact him.

"The course was well received by students and I would like to expand it. I would like to hear from my colleagues if they have any suggestions or if they would like to get involved in any way. It is an opportunity to build something that is truly interdisciplinary and of tremendous interest to the student body."

The current forensics honours module has concentrated on the biological aspects of forensic science. Twenty-six students (13 from UCT and 13 from UWC) attended this year's course, which was divided into two sections: Working with the Dead (conducted at UCT) and Working with the Living (conducted at UWC).

In 2003, students got the chance to "work with the dead" as the forensic module overlapped with the archaeological excavation of the old slave cemetery in Prestwich Street, Green Point. In 2004, students were confined to a laboratory where they had to make do with "excavating" a skeleton, buried in a sand box by the course coordinator.

"They were also introduced to the difficult task of putting a name on a body," said Morris. "For the most part, bodies that have been skeletonised are no longer identifiable as specific individuals, but clues in the shape of bones and teeth can lead researchers to an identification if documentary or photographic records of the missing person are available."

At UWC, students explored the techniques of forensic DNA typing and applied this knowledge to various case studies. Both sections of the course emphasise how scientific data were recounted and considered in court and the UWC component ended with a visit to the police forensic lab at Delft.

Morris can be contacted on tel 650 6282 or e-mail

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