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Issue 4, April 2015

PUB - Public Understanding of Biotechnology
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Genetics, the maths of biology: profile of Antonel Olckers

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Antonel Olckers is a pioneer of South African biotechnology. Image by Clinton Wittstock.

“I realised during my times in court that lawyers and judges know nothing about DNA and how to go about introducing DNA evidence in a court proceeding,” said Dr Antonel Olckers, the CEO of DNAbiotec (Pty) Ltd, a successful biotechnology company she founded 13 years ago.

Dr Olckers has acted as an expert witness in many landmark DNA evidence cases, including the first ever in South Africa: The State vs Maqhina, 2001.

Since then she has been involved in several high profile cases and the professionalism with which she has done this has changed the way in which evidence is submitted to court on a national level.

“I initially wanted to do a Ph.D. in mathematics but while still an undergraduate I discovered genetics, which is the maths of biology and the best of both worlds,” said Dr Olckers, who later went on to specialise in human molecular genetics.

Her testimony in court has generally focused on the scientific validity of the DNA evidence and the ethical practice of forensic scientists during testimony, and marked improvements have been made regarding how this evidence is gathered and presented in court.

However,  a number of  issues remain including: accreditation of DNA labs, regulation of the forensic science profession, continued education, training of court officials, quality assurance, biased testimony, lack of transparency with regard to processes and procedures followed in the forensic community, incorrect interpretation of DNA evidence, lack of scientific knowledge (including the scientific method) by DNA experts, awareness by the legal profession and an over emphasis on the prosecuting perspective.

“For a scientist success in court is not measured at the level of justice (guilty or not) but at the level of delivering ethical and scientifically valid testimony. This is done with a focus of assisting the court,” Dr Olckers said, adding that it would take continuous and concerted efforts from the scientific and legal professions to bring about the appropriate changes needed to facilitate justice for all in South Africa.

“It is therefore imperative that everyone involved in the use of DNA in a criminal case is properly trained,” Dr Olckers said, adding that current education curricula of legal professions do not include forensic science evidence and principles. Her company has, since 2002, trained hundreds of advocates, magistrates, lawyers and judges on how to handle DNA evidence properly in a court of law.

In DNAbiotec® Dr Olckers has combined her love for science and business, bringing technology and science IP to the market as products and services. This company has developed the Essential Short Course Series™ to help other scientists with either technical or business skills that they will need to be successful in science; whether it be in academia or the private sector. In 2012 Dr Olckers received the “Biotech Fundi Capacity Builder Award” from GDARD for the training she had done via this short course series and over her academic career.

Dr Olckers served on the Biotechnology Advisory Committee (NBAC) of the National Advisory Committee on Innovation (NACI) and  the BioEconomy Project Team of NACI of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). She was also a member of the BioEconomy Strategy Steering Committee, convened by DST.

She started out in an academic career, with her final position being that of the Director of the Centre for Genome Research. She has supervised  32 post-graduate MSc/PhD students, 24 of these while working in DNAbiotec®.

“My passion is to empower other scientists, with the hard and soft skills they need but generally do not get during their science training,” Dr Olckers said, “and I have found that we start out by training people and often end up inspiring them. We cannot aim to achieve anything better than this.”

This article, written by Clinton Wittstock, originally appeared in Blazing a biotechnology trail.

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