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Doctoral Students

Liesl Arendse

Thesis title: Growth curve analysis and new standard development for South African Coloured (Mixed Ancestry) children aged 0 – 3 years

Supervisor: Assoc. Prof Victoria Gibbon
Co-supervisor: Dr. Desire Brits & Professor Vicki Lambert

Thesis description:

The latest South Africa Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS) reported stunted growth (height-for-age z-scores fell between the 1st and 3rd percentiles of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Multicenter Growth Reference Study (MGRS) 2006’s child growth charts) for 1 in 3 boys, and 1 in 4 girls (De Onis and Branca, 2016; National Department of Health et al., 2017). If this is applied to South African Coloured (Mixed Ancestry) children, approximately 80 589 males and 58 485 females younger than 4 years are estimated to be stunted in this age cohort (Statistics South Africa, 2018). Furthermore, the SADHS reported that 24% and 13% of South African children younger than 5 years in the middle and top wealth quintiles, respectively, were estimated to be stunted according to the WHO MGRS growth charts (National Department of Health et al., 2017). Conversely, the percentage children classified as overweight were twice the international average (6.1%) for the same age group. In a recent review, Singhal (2017) recognised that while the prevention of stunting and the promotion of linear growth “in small-for-gestational age or pre-term children has been shown to be beneficial for neurodevelopmental and other health outcomes, “the optimal pattern of infant weight gain is likely to differ in different populations”.  Further, rapid weight gain and post-natal growth acceleration in healthy, full-term infants, often in low- and middle-income country settings, has been associated with a greater risk for obesity and non-communicable diseases, later in life (Cameron and Demerath, 2002; Singhal, 2017) which will in turn lead to further financial strain on government subsidised medical facilities. If growth charts are to be used as a general health indicator of a population group, standardisation of population-specific growth models/charts may better inform health care policy development and regulate future preventative health care for population groups at risk (Christesen et al., 2016). With the intended roll out of a National Health Insurance (NHI) Policy in the near future (Department of Health, 2017), it is imperative to understand the factors that affect growth of at risk population groups.
Therefore, the aims of this study are; (1) to analyse the growth rate of Coloured South African children younger than three years; (2) to assess the effects of different socio-economic conditions on growth; (3) determine intergenerational differences across three generations (1975, 1995 and 2019); and (4) to develop a population-specific growth model for the age cohort 0 – 3 years from this population group.

Contact details: Email  


Elizabeth Dinkele

Thesis title: Exploring the aetiology of Mseleni Joint Disease using cellular modelling and disease ecology

Supervisors: Assoc. Prof Victoria Gibbon & Dr. Robea Ballo

Thesis description: Mseleni joint disease (MJD) is a crippling osteoarthritic disease which exclusively affects a rural community in KwaZulu-Natal. It is a rare disease with a country-wide prevalence of 1 in 84 000 people and a prevalence of 5.9% within the Mseleni community. The socio-economic burden of this condition is felt by the families of affected individuals, especially young individuals, who frequently forgo school attendance to assist with household subsistence. Despite more than 47 years of research, the cause of this disease remains unknown. Until the aetiology of MJD is known, this condition cannot be treated or prevented effectively, and the cycle of poverty and disease will be perpetuated in this community.

This project is part of an inter-disciplinary collaboration between Dr Victoria Gibbon (Division of Clinical Anatomy and Biological Anthropology (UCT)) and Dr. Robea Ballo (Division of Cellular Biology (UCT)) in search of the aetiology of MJD. The first aim of this project is to explore the aetiology of MJD using ecological and epidemiological surveys. By assessing the association between changes in MJD and changing economic, social, cultural and political landscape in Mseleni, it will be possible to distinguish between factors implicated in the aetiology of this disease, versus those merely associated with its pathology. The second aim is to develop an in vitro patient-specific cartilage model derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPSCs). This model will be used to assess the expression of genes which are known to be active in cartilage maintenance and repair networks. If differences in the expression of these genes are detected in MJD sufferers, epigenetic modifications are likely to be implicated in the aetiology of MJD.

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Judyta Olszewski

Thesis title: A bioarchaeological approach on Khoesan population continuity and health through dental wear and dental pathology

Supervisors: Associate Prof Victoria Gibbon and Dr. Jason Hemingway

Thesis description: Studying the dentition is of great interest within research in human biology because the teeth are the only bone that interact directly with the environment. Therefore, the teeth are independently informative about the individual that possessed them, providing insights into past behaviours on dietary and non-dietary (cultural) cases within a population. This research will focus on the prehistoric human skeletal record from southern Africa during the Holocene (the last 10,000 years) for dental pathology and trauma, dental wear, and wear direction. This study hopes to directly address questions to contribute to the historical understanding of behavioural and cultural practices amongst the Khoesan people, which is a historical record currently heavily dominated by western view and discourse.

Dental wear is a progressive process wherein the enamel and the dentine of a tooth will wear away as a result of attrition, abrasion, and erosion. These processes are inevitable and result in the continuous wearing away of the crown as an individual ages. Although the result of dental wearing is inevitable, additional factors such as diet choice, parafunctional habits, and mandibular morphology can affect the rate and direction of wear (Incau et al. 2012, 215; Mays and Pett 2014, 394; Mickleburgh 2014, 291; Smith 1984, 39). Furthermore, the teeth are susceptible to damage through pathological lesions and trauma. Studying and diagnosing dental pathology will seek to investigate further into the health and diets of the population.

This project will utilise non-invasive and non-destructive methodologically advanced techniques to readily identify the potentials of reconstructing the past through diagnoses of dental pathology, dental wear quantity, and wear pattern analysis. These lines of investigation hope to demonstrate the methodological justifications for using the dentition as a useful tool in bioarchaeological analysis and hopes to present great potential for refining indigenous Khoesan history using direct biological data.

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Dr. Glen James Paton

Thesis title: Lumbosacral transitional vertebra morphology: a South African population.

Supervisors: Professor Graham Louw, Professor Scott A. Williams and Dr. Shahed Nalla

Thesis description: Lumbosacral transitional vertebra (LSTV) is an anatomical variation, observed unilateral or bilateral, in which the transverse process of the last lumbar vertebra exhibits signs of dysplasia (variation in vertical height) with varying degrees of fusion to the ‘first’ sacral segment (Southworth & Bersack, 1950; Hughes & Saifuddin, 2004; Jancuska et al., 2015). The estimated global prevalence rate for LSTV is 12.1%. There is a paucity of research into prevalence rates in Africa and no established data for South Africa exists.

Lumbosacral transitional vertebra can be associated with low back pain (LBP) and may impact the quality of life of the individual. Considerations for spinal biomechanics and treatment of LBP must therefore be tailored for these individuals. Better understanding of LSTV in a South African context can aid in targeted treatment both conservatively and surgically.

This project will utilise spinal imaging techniques such as radiographs and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as well as osteological analysis. The primary aims are to establish a prevalence rate estimate for three largest ethnic groups in the South African population as well as describe the variations in morphology in the South African sample. Comparative analyses will also be utilised to explore possible evolutionary aetiology.

Contact Details: Email


Maximilian Jan Spies

Thesis title: The effect of clothing on the decomposition process and post-mortem interval estimation in the temperate southwestern Cape, South Africa

Supervisor: Assoc. Prof Victoria Gibbon Co-Supervisors: Dr Jacqui Friedling & Dr. Devin Finaughty

Thesis description: The estimation of the time-since-death or post-mortem interval (PMI) is a crucial element of forensic death investigations, and is influenced by multiple factors. Despite recent taphonomic studies in Cape Town, the effect of clothing on the general decomposition process remains largely unknown. Baseline data on decomposition rate has been established previously with unclothed pigs by this division in the forensically relevant Cape Flats Dune Strandveld habitat. I seek to determine the effect of clothing on limiting vertebrate and invertebrate access, to alter the rate of decomposition which may consequently affect the estimation of PMI. Most recovered individuals in forensic cases are clothed, highlighting the need for this research to understand the accuracy of PMI estimates and improve identification rates.

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Graduated PhD Students

2020. Francesca Du Toit. PhD (Anatomy). Increased risk of cerebral vascular accidents due to persistence of embryonic venous pathways in the adult brain. Supervisor: Professor Graham Louw.

2020. Marlie Greeff. PhD (Neuroanatomy).The morphology of the intraparietal sulcus of children prenatally exposed to alcohol in a Western Cape community of South Africa and its potential role on number processing. Supervisors: Dr. Christopher Warton, Professor Ernesta Meintjes, and Dr. Fleur Warton.

2019. Stevie Biffin. PhD (Neuroanatomy). Differences in subcortical volumes on structural Magnetic Resonance Images and associated neurobehavioural differences in children exposed prenatally to alcohol from Cape Town, South Africa. Supervisors Professor Ernesta M Meintjes & Dr. Christopher Warton.

2018. Devin Alexander Finaughty. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The establishment of baseline data on large animal soft-tissue decomposition in two terrestrial habitats in the Western Cape, South Africa. Supervisor: Professor Alan G. Morris.

2017. Fleur Warton. PhD (Neuroscience). The neurostructural effects of prenatal exposure to methamphetamine in an infant population in the Western Cape. Supervisors: Prof Ernesta Meintjes and Dr. Chris Warton.

2016. Petra Maass.PhD (Biological Anthropology). A statistical shape analysis of the neurocranium and long bones. Supervisor: Dr Jacqui Friedling.

2015. Lakha Kavita. PhD (Biological Anthropology). Sequential changes in epiphyseal union in South African children between the ages of 6 up to 32 years using full body LODOX scans. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris.

2014. Adjenti Savior. PhD (Applied Anatomy). An investigation into the ultrastructural parameters of abdominal muscles in children and adolescents with spastic type cerebral palsy and the effect on postural muscle performance. Supervisor: Prof. Graham Louw.

2014. Dlamini Nonhlanhla. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The early inhabitants of the Upemba Depression of the Democratic Republic of Congo: a biological review of the cultural continuity theory. Supervisors: Prof. Alan G. Morris and Prof. Judith Sealy.

2014. Milner Brenda. PhD (Molecular Medicine). Isolation and characterisation of colon cancer stem cells and the effects of epigenetic modulation on pluripotent markers. Supervisors: Dr. Victoria Gibbon, Dr. Clem Penny, and Prof. Paul Ruff. University of the Witwatersrand.

2011. Clarke Carrie. PhD (Orthopaedics). Joint hypermobility syndrome and developmental coordination disorder in adults: exploring the association and the impact. Supervisor: Dr. Delva Shamley. Oxford Brookes University.

2011. Unger Marianne. PhD (Applied Anatomy). The role of the abdominal muscles in pelvic positioning and lower limb function in children with spastic type cerebral palsy. Supervisor: Prof. Graham Louw.

2009. Reilly K. PhD (Orthopaedics). Investigation of the differences in foot and ankle characteristics of patients with lower limb osteoarthritis. Supervisor: Dr. Delva Shamley. Oxford Brookes University.

2008. Phillips Vince. M. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The dental and skeletal maturation of South African children and the relation to chronological age. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris. University of the Western Cape.

2007. Friedling L Jacqui. PhD (Biological Anthropology). Grave tales: an osteological assessment of health and lifestyle from 18th and 19th century burial sites around Cape Town. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris.

2005. Draper C. PhD (Public Health). Medical students’ attitudes towards and perceptions of the Primary Health Care approach. Supervisor: Prof. Graham Louw.

2002. Peckmann Tanya. PhD (Biological Anthropology). Dialogues with the dead:  an osteological analysis of the palaeodemography and life history of the 19th century northern frontier in South Africa. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris.

2000. Bukenya Edmond EM. PhD (Biological Anthropology). The vertebral column in humans and selected non-human primates, and the functional structure of its transitional elements. Supervisor: Prof. Alan G. Morris and Prof Graham Louw.

1994. Steyn Maryna. PhD (Biological Anthropology). An assessment of the health status and physical characteristics of the prehistoric population from Mapungubwe. Supervisors: Prof. Alan G. Morris and Prof Maciej Henneberg. University of the Witwatersrand.