Dr. Julie Valentine “has been a driving force to inform policy to reduce sexual violence, provide a voice and vision for affected individuals"
Content note: This article discusses sexual assault. If you are a survivor of sexual misconduct or know someone who is, BYU has extensive resources to help: https://advocates.byu.edu
Working as a forensic nurse while raising eight children, Julie Valentine had always planned to pursue a Ph.D. in nursing someday, but it never seemed practical in her busy life. Then late one night at the hospital, while caring for a sexual assault victim who strongly impacted her, her goal suddenly felt urgent.
“I finished her sexual assault medical exam at about three in the morning,” Valentine said. “And I knew, I had to collect research to improve outcomes for my patients. I knew that to make changes, I needed data.”
Valentine went home and stayed up the rest of the night outlining a plan get her Ph.D. When she began graduate work at Duquesne University the following year, she already knew exactly what she wanted to do for her research project: build a massive database of information from Utah’s thousands of sexual assault exam records, for a wide lens look at sexual assault in the state.
Now as a BYU nursing professor over a decade later, Valentine’s efforts have resulted in the largest state database on sexual assault cases in the U.S. In honor of her accomplishments, Valentine has been awarded the 2023 Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology in research. She is the first nurse to receive the peer-nominated award, the state’s highest civilian scientific and technological distinction.
Valentine’s work “has been a driving force to inform policy to reduce sexual violence and provide a voice and vision for affected individuals,” said Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox. He also noted that Valentine is “recognized as one of the leading researchers on the topic of sexual violence in the world.”
The database includes records from 9,096 sexual assault cases in Utah from 2010 to 2022. Valentine collaborated with fellow BYU nursing professor Leslie Miles on the database, as well as forensic nurses, forensic scientists, law enforcement and legislators — especially Utah Representative Angela Romero. Over the years, their project has attracted state and federal funding from stakeholders who recognize the work’s urgency.
“It’s really about listening to the victims, trying to capture their voices and then acting upon it,” Valentine said. “We wanted to track each of these cases all the way through — was the sexual assault kit submitted, what were the DNA analysis findings, what can we learn from victims to improve practice and policy? Nobody had done that.”
Valentine’s findings have changed how victims are cared for and how evidence is processed. For example, early in their research, Valentine’s team found that from 2010 to 2013, just 38% of sexual assault kits in Utah were submitted for analysis. This discovery drew media attention and eventually led to House Bill 200, which now legally mandates the submission and testing of 100% of Utah’s kits.
“It used to be that when I was with a patient and they’d ask me, ‘So what happens to my kit?’, I would have to say, ‘Well, it may or may not go to the crime lab.’ After House Bill 200, I could say, ‘Your kit will be given to the crime lab to be analyzed.’ That was powerful as a nurse, to be able to know that for my patients,” Valentine said.
Valentine’s team also pioneered the practice of gathering “touch DNA,” DNA from the perpetrator’s skin cells that is shed on the victim’s clothing or body. Previously, healthcare providers had typically collected samples only from bodily fluids. Through Valentine’s leadership, collecting touch DNA in sexual assault exams is now a nationwide practice and has led to convictions that would otherwise have been impossible to secure.
Her team hopes to next create another database specifically for child victims, which Valentine is especially passionate about as a former pediatric forensic nurse. In all of Valentine’s initiatives, the research always comes back to her one-on-one experiences with patients. “Because I work as a nurse, I am incredibly aware that each one of those data points represents a person whose life has been impacted by sexual or gender-based violence.”
Valentine wasn’t always on the path to nursing, or to BYU. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, busy as the president of her sorority and the homecoming queen, she was originally majoring in engineering. She switched to nursing after her engineering advisor stood her up for a meeting, and while she waited for him, she began perusing a poster on the wall about a Ph.D. in nursing research.
“I was looking at this thinking, ‘These are all things I would love to do,’” she recalled. “I didn’t even know there was a Ph.D. in nursing!”
Later, working as a nurse at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles, Valentine met her future husband, a pediatrician-in-training who encouraged her to learn more about the Church.
“I had been a major church-hopper — I joined the Baptist church for two years, I was Presbyterian for five years, I was Episcopalian — and I had really strong misperceptions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Valentine said. “I had no interest in reading the Book of Mormon, but he knew I loved to read, so he gave me the ‘History of the Church, Volume 1.’”
Valentine was intrigued by Joseph Smith’s commitment to his beliefs despite his difficult life. Four sets of missionaries and many discussions later, she got baptized. After marrying and moving to Utah, she worked as a nurse off and on while she and her husband raised their large family.
When Valentine moved into pediatric forensic nursing at the encouragement of a colleague, she was initially reluctant, giving herself only six months to try it out — but eventually, forensic nursing came to feel like her calling.
“At first I thought, ‘This is awful, it’s child abuse, it’s really hard.’ Then I had a young patient whom I spent a lot of time with and felt that hopefully, I had helped her begin her journey to healing. And I thought, ‘I have a certain amount of time in my life to work as a nurse. This is probably the most important patient group for me to care for.’ And I’ve been all in ever since.”
Now equipped with the graduate credentials to teach and research as well as work in clinical settings, mentoring the next generation of nurses and nursing researchers at BYU is also a critical part of Valentine’s vision to improve sexual assault victims’ experiences and those of patients generally.
“I really do believe that nurses change lives for the better and make this world a better place,” Valentine said. “When I look out at a classroom of students, I frequently imagine the thousands of patients and family members behind them, whose lives they will touch.”