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Fighting Crime with DNA Forensics

Meet Anna Lim, a Home Team tech whiz who’s using DNA forensics to help investigators crack cases.
As someone who has always been curious about what causes us to fall sick and how antibiotics work, it was natural that Anna Lim chose to study microbiology at the National University of Singapore, though she never expected that she'd be involved in criminal investigations.

Anna Lim, Senior Assistant Director (Unconventional Threats), OCSTO, MHA. PHOTO: Natasha Razak

After completing a Masters in Bioinformatics at Nanyang Technological University, Anna served with the Health Sciences Authority and the Institute of Technical Education before joining the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in 2009. 

It was the operational possibilities that excited her. “MHA offers a different dimension and is more operations-based compared to most other labs, which are mainly focused on research and development,” she explained. 

Leading-edge DNA Forensics
Anna served as a Laboratory Manager at MHA’s Woodlands Analytical Laboratory for about three years before being tasked to help set up the Home Team Investigation Laboratory (HTIL) at Police Cantonment Complex. 

A focus on DNA: HTIL houses an array of DNA forensic and analytical tools. PHOTOS: Natasha Razak

Launched in 2016, HTIL provides DNA forensic support to help with criminal investigations. With its in-house capabilities, Home Team officers can submit case exhibits 24/7. Now Senior Assistant Director (Unconventional Threats) at MHA’s Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer (OCSTO), Anna works with her team to further sharpen HTIL’s forensic edge. “We’re committed to providing fast and accurate DNA forensic results,” she said.

Training and Research Duties
Besides providing leading-edge DNA forensic support, Anna also trains Home Team officers in sample collection, operating forensic instruments and analysis. It’s a job that requires her to bridge technical knowledge and operational requirements. 

“One challenge we face is that sometimes the samples brought in for analysis are what we call ‘touched DNA’ samples, like a piece of tissue paper,” she shared. “Compared to blood, the DNA present in such samples is often low in concentration, and may be hard to read.” 

Team effort: HTIL was established to develop the Home Team’s in-house DNA forensics capabilities. PHOTO: Natasha Razak

Research is also central to HTIL’s work. Over the last two years, Anna’s team has helped to develop a rapid DNA analyser. This all-in-one system helps identify suspects or victims of crime by matching them to their next-of-kin within two hours, compared to the usual six to eight hours required by other systems. 

Another tool that the HTIL team developed is a DNA Phenotyping Lab-on-chip. This consists of two separate kits; the first analyses gender, blood type and blood group while the second checks for biogeographical grouping. 

The team studied which characteristics would be most helpful for investigators. “We initially wanted to compress 10 traits onto one chip, but we found that it wasn’t possible because some genetic markers cross-react with one another,” she said. 

To help Home Team Departments enhance their operational capabilities, Anna works closely with her counterparts across the Home Team. “My favourite part of the job is that I get to learn about their challenges and solve them by operationalising our research,” she said. “It’s very heartening when fellow officers tell us that our results helped them in their investigations.”

Home Team Science and Technology
Want to learn more about Science and Tech innovations in the Home Team? Check out: 
Tomorrow’s Edge: 10 Years of Science and Tech in the Home Team
Safeguarding Our Borders with Science 
Safeguarding Our Borders with Science (Part 2) 
Vital Vision: Using Analytics to Secure Our Checkpoints
Future-ready Lifesavers

Written by

Natasha Razak


1 February 2019

Science and Technology
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