School of Life Sciences

Ms Alayka Dookie with her proud parents, Mr Rajesh Dookie and Mrs Nalini Dookie.

Top Achiever Encourages Women to Study Science

Ms Alayka Dookie graduated with a BSc Honours in Forensic Genetics, cum laude.

Upon completing her undergraduate studies in biological sciences at UKZN, Dookie found herself drawn to forensic genetics and registered for the honours programme offered by the School of Life Sciences.

‘Crime scene investigations have always interested me,’ she recalled. ‘From a young age I was fascinated by how the forensic side of science worked, how things like DNA and fluid samples collected at crime scenes played such a vital role in solving crimes and catching perpetrators.  So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that UKZN offered a forensic genetics programme.’

Being familiar with the University’s structure and processes and the good relationships she already had with the staff in the School clinched the deal.

Dookie’s honours project was titled: Identification of CpG-SNPs in Association with DNA Methylation Markers for Human Body Fluid Identification.

‘My research included touching on forensic investigations, types of human body fluids, explanation of the DNA methylation process, what SNPs and CpG islands are and the role that CpG-SNPs play in body fluid identification,’ she explained.

DNA methylation is a biological process that involves the addition of a methyl group to part of a DNA molecule. It mainly occurs on CpG sites (a site where a Cytosine and Guanine base are found next to each other on the DNA molecule).

SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) can be defined as a single nucleotide in the genome sequence that results in a variation in the DNA sequence. These variations play a crucial role in predicting an individual’s response to environmental factors, and his or her risk of developing particular diseases, and can be used to track the inheritance of disease genes within families. The variations caused by SNPs allow scientists to measure the genetic differences between individuals.

CpG-SNPs can then be defined as the introduction of a CpG site due to an SNP being present at a specific reference base in the genomic sequence.

‘The analysis of certain body fluid-specific CpG sites and neighbouring SNPs have been reported as useful markers for body fluid identification,’ explained Dookie.  ‘The focus of my research was on CpG-SNPs and that CpG-SNPs can provide additional information such an individualisation in addition to body fluid identification.’

She said her research is significant because it supports a different approach to identifying human body fluids at crime scenes.

‘The system of fluid identification using CpG-SNPs that I researched does not seem to be widely used. Often, at crime scenes more than one type of human body fluid and different combination of body fluids can be found. My research helps to identify the different types of fluids at the scene and once the fluid is identified, it can provide a lot more information on the individual that the specific body fluid belongs too. This will go a long way in assisting to identify perpetrators or victims of crime.’

Dookie is currently working for Lancet Laboratories and gaining experience within a laboratory environment. Her goal is to be a forensic scientist, work in a research laboratory and further her postgraduate studies.

She thanked her parents, sisters (and two dogs) for their support as well as her supervisor, Dr Meenu Ghai, for guidance.

During her undergraduate studies Dookie received the Yaksha Scientific Award for research and was part of the Johnson & Johnson Top 100 STEM Women in Science student cohort. ‘This experience left me feeling proud to be a part of the generation where women are taking the lead in science,’ she said.  ‘I want to encourage all the young girls of today not to be afraid to take up STEM-based careers and to follow their passion and talents in the field of science.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal