Biola Alumna Creates System to Process Key Part of Sexual Assault Kits in Minutes

Sarah Lum (’14) strives to increase accuracy and decrease processing time in identifying sexual assault predators through a new system

Oct. 19, 2017 By Alisa Ohara

Tens of thousands of rape kits remain untested across the nation, according to a USA Today investigative nationwide count. Alumna Sarah Lum (’14) is developing a new system to decrease the amount of time it takes to process a sexual assault kit from a week long procedure to an afternoon analysis.


Lum was preparing to present research at the Microscale Separations and Bioanalysis International Symposium when she first heard about the backlog of sexual assault cases in the United States. Astounded by the statistics, she began conversing with the scientists around her to inquire whether anyone had attempted the separation of male from female DNA in rape kits using a technique called capillary zone electrophoresis (CZE). Lum decided to give the technique a shot and began preliminary experiments.


“Since I wasn't officially on this project, my experiments took place after work hours either late at night or over the weekends,” said Lum. “When I felt I had enough proof-of-principle evidence showing the technique had merit for a forensics application, I showed my adviser my results.”


Lum’s adviser was supportive and sent her to the International Gordon Research Conference on the Forensic Analysis of Human DNA where she met the world's leading forensic scientists, learned about cutting edge research and received feedback on her idea. When she returned to Notre Dame, Lum filed a patent on her instrument to move forward in her project.


The present technology employed in the vast majority of crime labs takes a week to process a single sexual assault kit. The method is called "differential extraction" and uses a series of buffer solutions to degrade the different cell types prior to analysis of the DNA. Overall, the method is time consuming, labor intensive and non-specific. It often results in a less than 40 percent chance of successfully identifying the male perpetrator, said Lum.


Compared to the current process, the CZE Fraction Collection system Lum developed performs the separation of the male from female DNA on a forensic swab in under 15 minutes. The process is still being developed and optimized with input from a number of collaborators in academia, crime labs and other experts in the field. Lum hopes it will pique the interest of an analytical company with the resources to commercialize it for widespread use in crime labs. However, even in its development, it has brought a lot of attention to the problem of sexual assault in present culture.


“By raising awareness of this injustice and stirring the hearts and minds of our community, I hope that God will open opportunities for His light to shine and healing to begin through both personal interactions and technological advancement,” said Lum.


One in 5 women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The center states that the majority of these crimes (90 percent) on college campuses are never reported. Several national initiatives are underway, including the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault and the It’s On Us campaign, which Biola University participated in during 2016. The campaigns aim to change cultural norms and engage campus communities in prevention.


Biola recently created a new full-time Title IX coordinator position, which had previously been incorporated into two other positions, in order to increase efforts in education, training and compliance with students and employees, which are both needed and required by law. Three of the main goals and responsibilities of the Title IX Coordinator, when a complaint is reported, is to end the sexual misconduct, prevent its recurrence and address its effect.


“It is my hope through the efforts of this new full-time role and buy-in across campus that we will be able to create a campus climate that is educated, aware and taking preventative measures to aid us towards that end,” said André Stephens, Biola University vice president for student development.


Lum attributes her years at Biola for equipping her to pursue this ambitious project. Her research as a biochemistry student proved essential in her acceptance to Notre Dame's graduate program, her extra curricular involvement helped her gain a set of transferable skills in analytical instrument design and her training in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute helped her effectively communicate technical knowledge in writing to a wide range of audiences from different backgrounds.


“The small class size of upper division science courses meant I had the opportunity to work very closely with my professors in coursework and research projects,” said Lum. “I enjoyed the opportunity to study abroad on a research trip to Belize as well as present my work on Atomic Force Microscopy at an international conference in San Francisco.”


Lastly, out of all her experiences at Biola, Lum was especially thankful for the unique community Biola encompassed.


“Learning to hear from God in daily quiet time, to trust in Him despite curves and bends in the road, and to be sustained by Him in every season, are ongoing life lessons that define who I am and give me purpose and direction in life,” said Lum.


Lum is continuing to run various experiments to optimize the system based on her results. Lum was awarded one of 10 National Institute of Justice Graduate Student Fellowships in STEM which provides her stipend, research and travel expenses for the next three years. She hopes to have a working model in a local crime lab to process samples side-by-side with the current methodology and compare results in the near future.


Visit the Biola School of Science, Technology and Health for more information about our STEM programs.  


Written by Alisa Ohara, media relations intern. For more information, contact Jenna Loumagne at (562) 777-4061 or

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