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Outside the Lab Forensics, Training and education, Profession

Forensic Science at FIRS

As most scientists who study the process of death and decomposition know, research facilities are not one-size-fits-all solutions. Every region’s climate, geography, and ecology are different, so what happens to one body in a particular location over time may be very different compared with another body at a second site. And that’s why a single human decomposition facility for taphonomic research and forensic investigations is not enough; however, there are only eight such facilities in the world – six in the continental United States, one in southern Australia, and one in the Netherlands.

But even six facilities is perhaps insufficient in a country as geographically diverse as the United States. Of the six, only one – the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) at Colorado Mesa University – is situated in environmental conditions that represent most of the western half of the country (see Figure 1), making it a vital hub for research, teaching and services in the field of forensic taphonomy.

Köppen-Geiger climate zones

Figure 1. Human decomposition facilities in various climate zones of the United States in 2017. Adapted from a map by Tammy Parece, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, USA.

Birth versus death

In 2012, construction of the FIRS building began at Colorado Mesa University, inspired by a number of faculty members at the institution. When only the fences around the outdoor facility were up (nothing else had been built), I was hired for the job of Director through a competitive process – demand for the job was high. No wonder given that FIRS had an environment unlike any similar facility elsewhere in the country, making the prospect intriguing to those of us who work in forensic disciplines.

The first human donation to FIRS was received in 2013. By now, we have had over 70 donations, 20 of which reside in our skeleton collection. FIRS features a fenced outdoor facility of approximately two acres, as well as an indoor lab and classroom building of about 2,000 square feet. Its location was chosen specifically to provide balance – it’s close to the main campus, but distant from any living areas.

Initially, some might have expected issues with public perception of the facility – especially considering some popular, yet not necessarily accurate, depictions of “body farms.” Nevertheless, I really haven’t experienced any such issues. Certainly, the research we conduct at FIRS (whether before or after death) is not for everyone, but most recognize the importance of the work. If anything, people can be too enthusiastic; I’ve had requests for elementary school and scout group tours! We don’t offer any tours of the facility but, even if we did, I don’t feel that viewing naked, decomposing human cadavers is appropriate at younger age levels. Generally, telling instructors that the remains are nude is a deal-breaker…

Behind the chain-link fence at FIRS

Though tours may be inappropriate, we are very invested in the educational value of our facility. We run on a backbone of interns and student volunteers, who receive course credit in return for their assistance. Tasks that might be completed by our student workers in addition to their own research projects include maceration (the cleaning of a skeleton for placement in our collection), body placement, photography, labeling remains, data collection, or maintaining our databases. It’s a great opportunity for hands-on learning and research experience, and it gives STEM subject students the chance to integrate and collaborate with social science students. In an increasingly interdisciplinary research world, I think that’s invaluable.

Our daily routine begins with photographing the remains in the outdoor facility and documenting them on specific Likert scales like our Total Body Scale (TBS), which we use to measure decomposition. The system assigns a numerical value to a stage of decomposition for head and neck, trunk, and limbs. The individual scores are added together for the TBS, yielding a quantitative assessment of our qualitative observations. If there are insects on the remains, we may collect some for identification and for our records. There are always between four and eight research projects underway as well – and all data is eventually embedded into the FIRS collection.

Back inside, we upload the data into a series of spreadsheets and carry out quality assurance protocols. Meanwhile, we generally have a maceration ongoing; after a set of remains is brought in from the outside facility, we clean the bones for the skeletal collection. This involves an initial disarticulation in which we remove tissue that peels off or can be removed with EMT scissors. By then, we can usually place skeletal elements into containers to which we add dish detergent and hot water, which will soften the tissue and de-grease the bone. Tissue is removed as it softens, the water changed, and the round repeated as needed until the skeletal elements are clean. Then, they are dried and moved to the dry lab, where each bone is labeled with the donation number.We also have students working on the skeletal collection, both for research projects and for their own education. Finally, all of the day’s work has to be documented and written up – and, speaking of writing, we usually have a couple of journal articles in different stages being batted around among authors. Everyday life at FIRS is quite productive!

Melissa Connor is Director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station and Professor of Forensic Anthropology at Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, USA.

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About the Author
Melissa Connor

Melissa Connor is Director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station and Professor of Forensic Anthropology at Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, USA.

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