Picture this: A child goes missing and a frantic search ensues. After some years and no success, the official search dies down, but the hopeful family never stops looking. One of their biggest allies in the continued search? Presumptive victim identification.
This is just one of the many fields of research and study under the helm of Professor Nanette Briers, who was recently appointed as Head of the Division of Clinical Anatomy at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).
Briers has been involved with teaching and research the last 25 years and has three main interests: Craniofacial identification, Anatomy Education and Health Research Ethics.
“I believe it is important that we seek to produce translational research on all aspects, with a wide and direct application to society," she says.
“Craniofacial identification forms part of the broader fields of Physical and Forensic Anthropology, and I aim to improve methodologies and practices to achieve positive, or at least presumptive, identification. This research considers both living and deceased persons. In terms of the living, I study age progression in adults and growth patterns in children relevant to age progression as well as facial comparison methods where photographs are compared to CCTV surveillance and other digital media in collaboration with the Human Variation and Identification Research Unit, School of Anatomical Sciences at WITS, and the South African Police Service (SAPS).
“As for juvenile and adult remains, fingerprinting, DNA and dental history would be used for positive identification, however in some instances, these identifiers are not available. The number of unidentified human remains increase daily, and methodologies such as biological profile analysis, post-mortem facial depictions, and craniofacial approximation/reconstruction need to be constantly improved to achieve presumptive victim identification in homicides, missing person cases and mass disasters."
Briers is collaborating in this regard with Dr Mandi Alblas, head of ViSUN (Victim Identification at SU) and Dr Kathryn Smith, an interdisciplinary artist, forensic imaging specialist and Head of the Department of Visual Arts, SU. Ultimately, the aims are to aid SAPS and to provide answers to families with missing loved ones.
Briers was born in Cape Town, but with her father working for the Department of Justice as registrar of the supreme court, the family relocated a few times. She grew up in Bloemfontein, but the family later moved back to Cape Town where she matriculated.
She obtained a BSc at SU and then moved up country to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Pretoria where she remained at the Department of Anatomy as an academic for the next 24 years. She completed a BSc Hons (cum laude) and MSc in Physiology as well as a PhD in Anatomy.
She worked as senior lecturer in the School of Anatomical Sciences at WITS for five years.
Briers moved from Gauteng and joined SU as associate professor on 1 February 2022 and as head of the division from April this year.
As head of the Division of Clinical Anatomy, Briers is responsible for the strategic focus, planning, coordination, and monitoring of academic programmes as well as research activities and community engagement.
In addition, operational planning, and management of departmental facilities, including the body donation programme, and finances and day-to-day functioning of the division and staff development.
“I am expected to continue to develop research focus fields and I am involved in teaching of both the old and 'new' medical and health care science curricula."
Her short-term plans include reviving the body donation programme which was halted during Covid. “Dissection is part of the core business of the division and as such, securing donors is a top priority. We already initiated recruitment strategies and outreach projects within the local communities.
“I believe partnerships between anatomists and clinicians are important for students to understand the anatomical basis of clinical conditions. Therefore, my second goal is to strengthen cooperation with our clinical colleagues with regards to teaching and research. We already have a good working relationship with the SUNSKILL Laboratory, and I want to build on that to provide more realistic simulations of invasive procedures and to measure the impact of such training."
Longer term plans involve mentorships, cross disciplinary research collaborations and interuniversity exchange programmes to make a positive impact on many levels.
“These strategies will not only help to grow capacity within the division, but also increase diversity and encourage research excellence."
Briers has an interest in languages and can speak some Sesotho – it was a third language in her primary school, and she took op Northern Sotho at Tuks. “As a lecturer it is important to establish rapport with students and I found communicating in their home language, even on a basic level, is very effective in this regard," she says.
The married mom of two sons, James (25) and Matthew (23), lives in Boston in the northern suburbs of Cape Town and enjoys playing squash as well as hiking and water sports. “I completed several half marathons, including the Two Oceans half marathon twice, although I prefer shorter distances. I also recently took up pottery as a creative medium."