In this interview, Vanessa Lynch and Jennifer Degner discuss a notable initiative they are spearheading to bolster forensic DNA practices in Africa (and around the globe), with a focal point on addressing sexual assault.
Vanessa, being the Regional Director of DNAforAfrica, embarked on this mission following a personal tragedy, the murder of her father, which led to the establishment of the DNA Project in 2005. The project’s scope expanded beyond South Africa in 2019, advocating for stronger DNA laws and awareness across the continent.
Together with Jennifer, Vanessa launched the Global Sexual Assault Kit Donation project, which aims to provide simplified sexual assault kits to African nations, kickstarting their mission in Zambia. The kits are designed to efficiently collect DNA samples from sexual assault victims, with a streamlined set of essential items.
Relying heavily on donations and volunteer efforts for collecting and shipping supplies, they’ve ingeniously overcome logistical hurdles by having individuals carry the kits in their suitcases to the destined locations.
A pivotal aspect of this initiative is ensuring the collection of high-quality DNA samples, which will be meticulously tracked and analyzed to gauge the effectiveness of the simple swapping technique employed. The project harbors hopes that positive results will magnetize more support and funding, paving the way for a sustainable and expansive impact.
Vanessa and Jennifer underline the significant potential housed in small ideas and encourage others to chip in, celebrating the collaborative ethos, the profound connections formed on this journey, and the overarching goal of aiding survivors and advancing forensic practices in Africa.
Laura: Welcome Vanessa and Jennifer, we are so excited to have you here. Vanessa, you came a long way to visit, so we appreciate it. We’re here at ISHI 34. We’re doing our annual video series and we can’t wait to hear more about your project. But before we go into detail, I’d be wonderful for our viewers if you could introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your backgrounds. Jennifer, who would like to start?
Jennifer: My name is Jennifer Degner and I’m a sexual assault nurse examiner in Texas.
Vanessa: I’m Vanessa Lynch and I’m the regional director for Africa. And as it stands, I work in Africa around forensic DNA, which I’m incredibly passionate about. And of course, this particular project, which is very close to my heart, as is Jennifer.
Laura: I can tell that. Absolutely. Do you want to talk a little bit about DNA for Africa, how that started, and some of the background for people who might be viewing this for the first time, or haven’t attended ISHI?
Vanessa: Yeah. Thank you. So originally DNA project was my NGO that I founded in 2005 after my father was murdered. And that was really around lobbying for DNA laws and DNA policies and awareness around the power of DNA in South Africa. When I closed that in 2019, I took up a consulting position that really now my region went beyond South Africa into Africa and really doing the same thing, looking at regions and understanding how they can develop their forensic DNA policies, their DNA platforms, and looking at projects such as the one we’re involved in now where we can leverage at all levels the power of DNA. There is a huge amount of crime, human trafficking, and specifically in this project, gender based violence. And these are just different projects that we’re involved in to, as I said, leverage the power of DNA. So that’s essentially what I’m doing now.
Laura: That’s wonderful. I remember talking about your prior project. It was such an incredible run. I was happy to see you consulting and moving on to this. Can we talk a little bit about why (we’re going to get into the project), but why is all of this so important?
Vanessa: Obviously, the catalyst when I first started was my father’s murder. And understanding that because there was no DNA taken in his particular case, which definitely could have linked the murderers to my father, who to this day have not been found, and seeing the success of through lobbying, how you can drive governments to adopt policies that really do make changes. I mean, now that we have a DNA policy, you know, we see serial offenders linked up to 60 crimes, 60 rapes in South Africa. So I think originally it was it was really about my father’s case, but then it just grew so much bigger. And it’s through that that I really feel his death wasn’t in vain. And there’s so much that you can do. You know, the power of belief and passion. And that really is what drives me. And taking it beyond the borders of Africa. And I meet the most courageous, unbelievable people through the work that I do. That is incredibly humbling.
Laura: Oh, that’s so, so well said. Thank you so much. Well, one project that you’re both working on together right now is the Global Sexual Assault Kit Donation Project or Global SAK. Would you like to talk a little bit more about that?
Jennifer: Yeah, so this came about in just such a Covid era, funny simple way. And via zoom we had I followed DNA for Africa on Instagram and just was so impressed and loved what they were doing and was, you know, I would like their stuff, I would comment on their posts and stuff, and we just ended up having a conversation, and it was just a very organic question of after understanding some of the needs that they had and understanding some of the difficulties and challenges we had during Covid, taking care of sexual assault patients, I just threw out. I just kind of was thinking out loud about, like, we have a surplus of supplies all the time, and they are things that are still clean and sterile. And could they not be reused and thinking that they might not want them, or that my administration probably wouldn’t support it. And then in the end, I mean, they gladly wanted all the supplies, and my administration was very supportive of it and felt like it was absolutely the right thing to do. Not realizing, especially in the United States, where there are very well funded programs and whether it’s state or federal level, there is a lot of funding for this. So we know that there isn’t necessarily the same types of needs in the United States. And so we thought it was kind of a no brainer, like, why would we not, you know, try to repurpose these items to where they can go somewhere they’re going to help people and and also not end up in landfills. We talked about the environmental piece of it. And you know how that was just such an extra, you know, great thing on top of. What we already doing that these are items that we’re literally just going into landfills.
Laura: That’s an incredible win win win.
Jennifer: Yes. For everybody.
Laura: Yes, it really is. And that it came out of a Covid Zoom I find that that’s and that’s what that’s an incredible collaboration just from somebody valuing something, paying attention, having a conversation. I love to hear those stories. When you decided to do this, I’m sure there were challenges that came up in the transport and other things. I’d love to hear about those and how you’re overcoming them.
Jennifer: Yes. Well, so, you know, in the very beginning, it was even just figuring out basic logistics of how are we going to physically get items, you know, to where they need to go. And and we were very lucky, you know, Vanessa was so amazing in the beginning of, of putting together just a really holistic team, somebody from every area that we would need to really give their input to, to know that we were starting off well, we weren’t going to get ourselves into too many issues. And so, I think that kind of steered us away from a lot of really big problems. Was Vanessa putting together just a really great team. Everybody had their expertise, they could contribute, you know, and we could kind of head off at the pass any, any issues. But it definitely hasn’t been without challenges. But I think our team has been really great. We were just talking on the walk over here about something would come up and we’d pivot and we’ve been able to pivot and, you know, just kind of redirect our energy and our resources where we need to. I don’t know, Vanessa, what are your what are your thoughts? What did you think?
Vanessa: It’s the one thing about working in Africa is that the environments are challenging and that there are very few resources. And often you just have to think on your feet and get it done. And the more complex that you make an issue, the more difficult it is to actually get to the result. So the good thing is that Jennifer and I are quite similar in that we it’s just keep it simple, stupid. You know, recently we had to get a training video together. Jennifer had her iPhone, she went to a mannequin. A friend of hers videoed her and put together a three minute video. That’s the training video for the kits. Putting the kits together. What items do we need that are not going to, you know, confuse as to what’s used for what. So that approach has, has really enabled us to keep moving forward. And it’s just worked. And often I think we do this, you know, Covid taught us you can just you can get things done simply, you know, and and I think as long as we continue with that approach, the challenges will be less of a barrier for us.
Laura: I think that’s remarkable. I mean, that’s actually that’s great advice for anybody in any organization. You don’t need so many layers of bureaucracy. If you can get something done and make a difference, just get it done. That’s fantastic.
Jennifer: And I know in the beginning, you know, my urge was to we have you know, there’s so many different types of supplies in in a kit when I open it and my urge was, let me just send you everything. And because we just you want to help, you know. And so that’s why Vanessa’s input was so important. Because I’m learning and I hope, I think that I’m trying to do a lot of listening and learning because their way is not our way and their resources are not our resources. And so that’s why it was so helpful for her to say, no, we’re just going to do these four items. We don’t want to overwhelm them. And so then that gave me a really good perspective okay. Step back. Listen. Learn from them as to what you know, what works for them. It’s not about what works for me. This has to work for them. And because that’s what it’s about, you know, making it successful for the people wherever they are Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and and ultimately what’s best for the survivors. So we just want to do right by them.
Laura: That is a beautiful theme that we are seeing this year about, right? Especially when you’re talking about different cultures, whether it’s within a country or between countries, you know, making sure that everything works for the people. So talking about that, streamlining the kits, transporting them. Vanessa, do you want to start. And then I’d love to see the pieces. I think you brought some examples for us.
Vanessa: This is probably been the most challenging aspect if you consider that, you know, you’re talking about an ocean between two continents, a lot of bureaucracy. And even though it’s a donation, you still have to overcome the challenges of, well, there’s excise. And then there’s, you know, shipping costs. So we have managed through people coming, you know, across to me or across to Africa to put a few in the suitcase and continuously get.. I mean, we’ve literally through this way donated over 5000 items to the Zambian Forensic Science Laboratory, which is sort of our pilot project, and it’s all packaged correctly and everything that’s a chain of custody. We have a spreadsheet, we have a research project. And again, it just shows you, you know, at the end of the day, you will find a way. Now the the administrations are understanding that actually this is a benefit to them. So they’re getting involved in funding the shipping, you know, to their particular laboratory. And that’s helpful. But that’s how we’ve managed so far to get the project going is literally through people putting items in their suitcase and delivering them. And so and so it goes on.
Laura: That ingenuity is amazing. And if I am ever traveling back and you need some help, I would love to. I would love to be a part. I would love to be a partner. I’m a light packer. I used to be able to do a backpack, so I’ll have plenty of space for you. I think our viewers would be really interested in seeing what the kit, how you were able to pare that down to something that works just perfectly.
Jennifer: So the items that we chose to go in the kit are just the most basic items necessary to collect the DNA. And so the first item being it’s a pack of swabs. There’s two in here. So you see how that is super easy to ship safely because they’re sterile. They’re still sealed. Those swabs will then go in a drying box that it comes flat. And then you just have to pop it open and then they’ll go in the the envelope, which it doesn’t really matter what’s written on it. I’ve shown them in the video and even at my hospital, sometimes we even just mark out what’s written and write what we’re actually putting in the envelope. And so there’s space on the envelope just for whatever identifiers they want to use. Information for them to fill out, you know, however they see fit. And then these are the labels that once the drying box and everything go in here, it seals on the back. And that way it’s considered forensically sealed. And the tape is the very fragile evidence tape where if you try to manipulate it, it’ll tear. So we just wanted to start with that just to make it, you know, just again, simple, not overwhelming. We have enough items in the kits to for them to do basically the known DNA, the buccal swabs on the patient and vaginal swabs. And that’s what we’ve kind of come up together.
Vanessa: And you can swab the body with that. So it’s a multi-purpose swap. You know, fingernails, buccal swab, body swab, vaginal swab. So you know, having the swabs is such a useful item. And that’s why we thought, well, that can do the job of everything that you need to do in a, in a particular case, bearing in mind that low resources in Africa, you can’t send 100 swabs to a laboratory. They need maximum three good swabs, which also helps to, you know, limit in terms of the kit, what that that SANE or forensic collector is actually going to be collecting from that particular patient or survivor.
Laura: That is remarkable. The ingenuity and putting it together in such a simple way, in a way that maintains the chain of custody, is fantastic. I love seeing projects like this. How did you decide to launch in Zambia first? How did that come about?
Vanessa: Well, initially it was actually going to be in Kenya, and then it became slightly complicated with the bureaucracy. I work on another policy board with Innocent Mukasa, and he said he’s head of the forensic science laboratory. And one of their biggest barriers was the affordability of sexual assault kits. They are incredibly expensive because there are very few countries in Africa that develop these. So to import them at the dollar exchange rate, it just becomes a barrier to even collecting samples, which is so sad. So I said to him, well, would you like us to redirect them to yourselves? And he just jumped on it. And he’s an amazing partner to have because he’s very similar to us in that he’s responsive. He tries to do things simply. He’s head of the forensic science laboratory. So he’s, you know, he’s able to run the research pilot. And through that we’re also going to be able to see are these quality samples good quality samples? Are they getting good results from it? And that will also enhance the sustainability of the project to see. Well, this is a good project because we’re getting good quality samples. So that’s how innocent became involved. And obviously going forward, the success of this project will mean that we can roll it out into other countries. And there are so many in need of this.
Laura: Yeah, there’s so much potential to do so much good across the continent. So that’s incredible, I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong because it may be dated the information I’m looking at. But were there two big shipments that have been completed or where does the project stand right now and what’s your next step?
Jennifer: So two big shipments have been completed and there’s actually a third one ready to go. This will be the first time that that Innocent is arranging a pickup from us. And so instead of of having somebody bring it over, it’ll just go through DHL over straight to them. So yes, it is. We accumulate supplies so quickly. That I think we’re averaging about every other month, at least that we’re sending a large box of thousands of supplies over. So that was another thing. I think that was really interesting for my team, who didn’t kind of get any of this and understand what I was doing in the beginning. The team of SANEs that I work with, that once, they’re now seeing things accumulate. And because, you know, when we work, we’re all just on our own and we throw this stuff in the trash and you don’t ever see it again. So for them to see it accumulating and to see the boxes that I’m shipping, it really was mind blowing for them to visualize what we throw away. And they, you know, absolute buy in from everybody now because they see the vast amount of supplies that we were just just throwing away in the trash and how that is significant to someone else who who needs it and who doesn’t have any of that. So it’s been really profound on all of us.
Laura: So profound is the right word. I mean, that double benefit is just it is remarkable. I was really taken with your Justice is in our DNA logo, too, on the project website and the interdisciplinary approach. And, I mean, I think that you’ve really shown how that can work together. And I believe you mentioned a professor, Professor Lisa Smith, who’s also involved in the project. Maybe you want to talk about that as well.
Vanessa: So Lisa, I met… Unrelated, she had started a project in Kenya where they were looking, not this, but they were looking at developing a simple kit, an anti sort of contamination kit that again defied this big complex box of items and ensured that in those low resource environments that they were able to get good quality samples to the laboratory, but they were looking at manufacturing that in Africa, which is really difficult to find, to find that kind of resource. So I initially worked with her on that project, and when I met with Jennifer and I went to Lisa and I said, listen, we can maybe do exactly what you’re doing, but use it with donated items. The important part of her project is that there’s a research arm, so they are going to collate the information and find out if through a simple swabbing technique such as this, does it create good quality samples first of all? So Innocent will track the quality of the samples on receipt. He will show what kind of results are coming out on the other end, and whether that actually is able to be used in court. And does that enhance survival confidence in the system that enables them to report? Because often underreporting is due to the fact that nothing happens. So it’s a very important part because I think that funding, which is going to be necessary going forward. Jennifer does this in her spare time at no cost, and I think it’s a project that really can have its own legs going forward. But you’re going to need to invest in good quality forensics SANE training. You’re going to have to invest in the research arm of it, maybe in shipping and support such as that, and that research project is really going to underpin that motivation to get support and funding for, I think, a very important and easy project to support. It just makes sense.
Laura: I think that is a fantastic way to make it sustainable. And you’re right. And that enhances the reporting, which enhances the funding. So it’s a perfect way to approach it. I am so impressed with what you guys have done. How can other people support you?
Jennifer: So it’s been really exciting because we, you know, now that we’ve been talking about it more, we have had contact from other organizations who either have kits that they want to donate or want to figure out how they can donate supplies. And so we’re, you know, we’re in the process right now, I think definitely keeping an eye following us on social media. We’re growing. And so things are still changing. And but it’s been great because even if, like, I personally couldn’t take the kits from this other organization, we’re finding that conduit to get them where we need to go. So it’s created this great again, we’re just we’re great at pivoting. Like if something comes up, not a problem. We’re going to figure out because we want them. We want those supplies to go where they need to. And so just reaching out, you know, letting us know how you want to help. And because everybody has different ideas. And then based on what somebody wants to do, we can kind of tailor that to where it needs to go and where those resources need, you know, need to go next. So it’s just a lot of conversations right now, which are amazing.
I think every conversation I’ve had with anyone who’s reached out has been so wonderful and beneficial, and it’s another connection. And it’s been really it’s been really beautiful to see how people want to help. I don’t know why a year later, I’m still just so blown away because this was such just a simple little. It was just a random thought in my head. And I think what we’re hoping is that by talking and sharing, you know, that other people see that they can do something just maybe little to their program. But, you know, the more people who do this, the more people who support this, that it’s something that could grow to be very big. And eventually, hopefully, you know, my goal and our goal with this project is that everybody should have access to quality supplies, quality care, quality evidence collection, quality processing. Everybody should have access to that entire holistic experience. And so we’re just trying to take it a step at a time and make sure that we’re doing what we can do so that they can all have that.
Laura: I love the connections you’re making to grow this so that there are more supplies. And then in turn, you can serve more people. Yeah. That’s wonderful.
Vanessa: Yeah, I think shipping is the biggest the biggest issue. I think if anyone can help with that, because we’ve had so many people reach out to say, well, we’ve got extra supplies and it’s like, okay, that’s great, but we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to get them across the ocean and where are we going to store them in the meantime? So those sort of basic logistics are initially where we have plenty of laboratories who will take this with open arms. And so yeah, that would probably be one of the biggest. And support and forensic training I think that’s that’s yeah. Maybe Zoom forensic training course and so much.
Laura: It’s this really has legs. It’s amazing. The different pieces that started with a simple Zoom call. Yeah. If there’s one key takeaway that you would want the audience and attendees to for each of you, I’d love to hear what would be your one key takeaway for them?
Jennifer: I think my takeaway is just, you know, it never hurts to ask, even if you’re thinking something is a little idea, you know, or that somebody is going to say no, I just go for it. Because the ripple effects of this… I still vividly remember our funny little Zoom conversation late at night for her and, you know, afternoon for me, just thinking that I was going to visit with somebody who I could offer to support in some way and, and that this little idea… I think no idea is too little, you know, and just don’t hesitate to ask because, you know, even small ideas can have a really big impact.
Vanessa: It’s we often look overlook the basics. You know, we think forensic policy and big forensic laboratories and we forget about the very important collection process. You know, you can’t you can’t get off the starting blocks if you don’t get that right. And and that’s often, you know, for, for countries that might be developing. And this is even outside of Africa, they think immediately at the end result. But if you if you start with something small, it exponentially allows that framework to develop. And it gets everybody on board. So, you know, we often forget just to go back to basics. Keep it simple, keep it simple stupid. Oh my God. It’s such a ridiculous statement, but it works. It often is where you have to start.
Laura: I’m so excited to have you here. So I think there are so many people that you will be able to connect with that can help assist, hopefully in growing this at just the right you want. Yeah, it’s going to be amazing. Jennifer, have you attended before?
Jennifer: I have not – this is my first. I was.
Laura: I was wondering if it was your first. Yes I’m very excited.
Jennifer: Yes I’m very excited.
Laura: And Vanessa, I know you’ve been with us before.
Vanessa: It’s amazing.
Laura: Yeah. How how are you finding it? I would love to hear about the reception. What you think about it?
Vanessa: So, you know, I attended all the presentations yesterday, and they always have the most amazing quality. Love to network, meet people in this, in this network that are always doing incredible things, changemakers, brilliance and also year on year, especially if you’ve sort of skipped a few, you really do see the the development, the advancements that are happening in this space. So it’s a it’s a really beautiful platform where you showcase all of that. And I love that. Yeah. And and reconnecting.
Laura: I think it’s so wonderful. It makes me so happy. I was so excited when I heard and was able to watch you video ahead of time, and it’s just wonderful. So I can’t wait to get this out there too. And Jennifer, it’s so lovely to meet you.
Jennifer: It’s so nice to meet you. Thank you.
Laura: I hope you’ve had a great experience.
Jennifer: I have, and I think for me it’s just it’s amazing just, you know, there’s there’s times that trying to reach out and make connections and stuff can be a little arduous and time consuming, or it’s hard to make those connections. And then it’s so funny because you come here and like, everybody’s just here together and it’s like things, you know, it feels like things are just, you know, can happen so quickly and easily. And, I think that’s a huge benefit to be able to have so many, you know, people who are committed to the same goals and the same place able to just be be with each other and talk and and connect and and good stuff can happen.
Laura: We are so honored to have you guys. You guys are fantastic.
Vanessa: I bought this across for Jennifer. And it’s just really to say thank you. This this human being is the most incredible human being I have ever met in my life. She is an angel on earth. And I found this and it just spoke to me. It’s a it’s a little African forensic nurse that I. That I brought across.
Jennifer: It’s amazing.
Vanessa: You from the bottom of my heart that to meet people like you is an honor and a blessing. Oh my gosh. What you have done and the impact that you are making is extraordinary. And I am very pleased to have you in my life.
Jennifer: I’m the one who’s blessed. Oh my gosh. Oh you’re wonderful. Oh thank you. Thank you so much.
Laura: Isn’t that precious? You are going to make me cry. This is amazing. Oh seriously. Oh my gosh.
Jennifer: I think this has been I think one of the best parts too. I mean obviously it’s it’s wonderful, you know, the the idea. And I’m so excited that thought of helping survivors in country very far from me, people whom I’ll never meet. But I think this has been just amazing is when you meet people who are just such kindred spirits who who get you and you get them, and you just, you know, we bond and, you know, from so far away and and it just was an instant it was an instant connection. And I think that’s what has made it feel so easy. And it’s I think that’s why it’s worked so well is that that connection is that human connection is there. And then it just translates into all the work we do. So, you can see the joy and connection and that, I mean, that can only help people more.
Laura: Yes, I hope, I hope so. It’s so beautiful. Oh, wow. Thank you, thank you. I’m very grateful that you were here with us today.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS? SUBSCRIBE TO THE ISHI BLOG BELOW!