GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (CBS4) – Colorado is home to two unique research centers where donated human remains are left out in the elements so scientists can learn from the remains, and the work being done there helps investigators solve real-life crimes.

The Forensic Investigation Research Station in western Colorado

The Forensic Investigation Research Station (credit: CBS)

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“We have people from around the country and around the world coming to look at what we’re doing,” said Melissa Connor, Professor of Forensic Anthropology at Colorado Mesa University and the director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station near Grand Junction. CBS4 was invited to visit the station, which is surrounded by high fences that have prison-like wiring to prevent intruders.

The Forensic Investigation Research Station in western Colorado

(credit: CBS)

At the station, Connor and her Mesa students use hands-on learning to help solve mysteries about decomposition.

“Most of the descriptions of how bodies decay comes from the eastern woodlands (in the U.S.) where it’s very humid, a lot more temperate. It’s not from here in the arid areas where bodies dessicate or mummify,” Connor said.

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Student Sara Garcia is among those who are doing work at the station and advancing that knowledge. She’s part of a growing number of students nationwide who are interested in forensics.

“It’s a really interesting opportunity,” said Garcia. “It lets me put into practice what I’ve learned through these classes.”

The Garfield County facility opened more than six years ago at an elevation of 4,500 feet above sea level. Colorado Mesa University has also added another station up in Colorado’s mountains with a goal of finding out what changes occur to remains in that very different alpine environment. That one is located in Park County at 9,600 feet. The next highest forensic research station in the United States after Mesa’s two facilities is at 660 feet, according to Connor.

Melissa Connor

Melissa Connor (credit: CBS)

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“If you find a body out in the mountains or in the desert, it really helps narrow the window on who that could be by how long they’ve been out there,” Connor said.