CMU Forensic Investigation Research Station provides hands-on experience
Since it opened in 2012, the Colorado Mesa University Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) has received more than 25 donations of human remains to be used to study how the human body decays.
FIRS began receiving donations in 2013 and bodies have been deposited since then at the lab, which is located off 32 Road near Whitewater, Colo. FIRS originally started with pig cadavers as they decompose in a similar way to humans. It is also home to an indoor lab for the preparation of specimens.
“We look at how bodies decay, how long a body has been wherever it is, what happened to it at the time of death and when it has been found,” said Melissa Connorss, director of FIRS. “We are the highest and most arid lab. It does effect what happens after they die. It effects the insects, biological community and scavengers.”
Students also study how a body decays differently during different seasons and the impacts the environment can have on the remains after death.
This is the sixth station of its kind worldwide, including locations in Texas and Tennessee. Students who perform studies at FIRS are criminal justice or biology majors, with most interested in the forensic field.
“They will apply their knowledge to the law,” Connorss said. “We like to have students work with human bodies with some exposure to desensitize them before working with human cadavers in the field.”
Connors added no student is required to work with human materials for class. She does hope students use FIRS as a way to experience real-life situations before heading into the field.
“Their first encounter with a human body shouldn’t be at a crime scene,” Connors said. “It helps them focus on evidence correctly so getting the desensitization ahead of time is critical.”
Connors began working with CMU in 2012 from Nebraska Wesleyan University where she was the director of masters of forensic science program. She has 30 years of archaeological experience and 20 years in forensic science. She specialized in mass grave sites working in Yugoslavia and historic battlefields in Montana.
“I bring a broad overview to death investigation and forensic sciences which I give to my students,” she said.
Her experience and FIRS has helped shape the program and classes over the last three years. She works with around 30 students including one to four interns who work at FIRS each semester.
Kodi Harmon, a junior at CMU and a biology and criminal justice major has been studying at FIRS for more than two years.
“I think it’s great,” Harmon said. “It gives us a hands on approach to be able to do what we have to do so if we are ever faced with something like this in our career, we have a better idea of what to do and how to go about it.”
She added that since it’s actual human remains it’s a different story when doing studies in the field. It helps to get the students useed to working with human remains and makes it easier to work with fewer mistakes in the field.
FIRS relies on the deceased who wish to donate their body to be used in the lab.
Connors explained there are three ways folks can donate their bodies to science — anatomical (used in biology classes, medical schools) and used for two years, organ donations (sign up on back of driver’s license) and through donating to a body farm.
Interested folks can visit http://www.coloradomesa.edu/firs and fill out a form. FIRS has a pick-up radius of 75 miles, but if coming from a long-distance, folks can arrange through funeral home services.
“I wanted to extend a thanks to all the families who have donated their relatives or friends,” Harmon said. “It’s a huge part of what we do and are really appreciative of every single piece donated, money other donations.”
To learn more about FIRS, visit the website or call 970-248-1219.
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