Dealing With a Lab Leader's Death

Coping with the death of an academic colleague is not something you ever think you'll have to deal with, but it's regrettably more common than you might think. And when scientists die, it can have a powerful emotional and practical effect on those around them.

"When someone like Klaus dies, it's a huge loss of knowledge for the whole field. He knew the people and had the experience, and that's gone forever. What is left for us to do is pick up the pieces and move on with the work." --Gabriele Margos

The death of a scientific colleague may not be as emotionally charged as the loss of a family member. But losing someone you know, respect, and depend on can be emotionally wrenching. Beyond grief, the death of a mentor or trusted adviser can cause protégés--who depend on the lab leader's guidance to nurture their scientific confidence and emerging scientific autonomy--to become unmoored. The sudden loss of a principal investigator (PI) can leave less-experienced scientists to deal with practical problems such as student supervision, grants, and submitted papers. Above all, the loss of a PI's unique expertise and strategic research vision leaves behind a scientific gap that's difficult to bridge. How does a lab deal with the loss of an intellectually vibrant scientific leader and move on?

Keeping the group together

(Courtesy, Gabriele Margos)

Gabriele Margos (center) took over leadership of a lab at the University of Bath when its principal investigator, Klaus Kurtenbach (left), died in March of a stomach ulcer. Stephanie Vollmer (right), a Ph.D. student in the lab, says the biggest challenge for her was learning how to cope with the loss of someone who was "amazingly passionate about your work."

"Nobody really thinks about it, but these things do happen," says Gabriele Margos, a postdoc at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. Margos didn't have the benefit of advance notice when the head of her lab, Klaus Kurtenbach, died suddenly in March of a stomach ulcer. Margos and Kurtenbach met in the late 1980s as fellow Ph.D. students at the University of Bonn in Germany. In 2005, Margos became Kurtenbach's postdoc when he set up a lab at Bath to work on the ecology and co-evolution of ticks and the disease-transmitting bacteria that live in their gut.

In the first few days after Kurtenbach passed away, Margos couldn't afford to mourn. "There was so much to do and so many things to organize that I hardly had any time to think," she says. "Grief came only later."

The 20-year friendship with Kurtenbach made Margos's personal loss difficult to cope with, but it eased the scientific transition. "Klaus and I were a good team," she says. "We were very close. I knew what he was doing, and I was already involved with the administration of the projects."

After Kurtenbach's death, Margos was the lab's most senior member. But as a postdoc, she could not take an official role either as grantholder or as supervisor of the lab's three Ph.D. students. So the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at Bath appointed new official advisers for the students and a new PI for the two grants Kurtenbach had held. Yet Margos became the de facto leader, taking over the lab's day-to-day operations.

Her first concern was to keep the group intact. "The research was going well, we had promising results coming up, and it would be a shame to let everything fall apart," she says. She decided to continue the scheduled lab meetings, which helped to keep the group focused on science. "We were a close group before, and that helped us cope with the loss," Margos says.

Coping with a colleague's death

Below is some advice and suggestions compiled from the people interviewed for this article; it is not professional or medical advice. If you are struggling with a loss, consider professional help.

-Recover first. Avoid making big decisions about your research and career until you have had a chance to recover from the loss. "Allow yourself time to grieve on a personal level as well as a professional one," says Remy Ware of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

-If you can't take time out, talk. Pushing grief aside can lead to problems down the line, so seek help if you feel in trouble. "Friends, colleagues, and counseling staff are there to support you and will understand the pressure and distress you are experiencing," Ware says.

-Stay healthy. Eat properly, exercise, and get enough sleep. Don't resort to drink or drugs as a coping mechanism.

-Plan ahead, and communicate. Good management practice pays off, not only when there's a sudden loss in the lab but also through all sorts of adversity. Planning and communicating well makes it easier for others to pick up the pieces of submitted papers, grants, and collaborations if someone quits the lab, has to take emergency leave, and so on.

-Stay focused … If your late supervisor left you with a good plan for your dissertation, stick to it.

- ... But welcome new opportunities. The loss of a research partner or supervisor might leave an empty space, but it can also open doors for new collaborations and bring in fresh points of view to a research project.

The biology department dedicated a tree to Kurtenbach's memory, and his career was honored in a special session during a scientific meeting in September. But "when someone like Klaus dies, it's a huge loss of knowledge for the whole field," Margos says. "He knew the people and had the experience, and that's gone forever. What is left for us to do is pick up the pieces and move on with the work." She has applied for new grants to continue the research with the official support of Bath's tenured staff and hopes to recruit new Ph.D. students in the near future.

Students can be especially vulnerable to the "anxiety of having to establish a new relationship with someone who may not have the same intimate knowledge of their project," says Audrey Neill, head of staff counseling at the University of Edinburgh, also in the United Kingdom. "At such an important stage in their career, such a loss can be profound."

Stephanie Vollmer started her Ph.D. with Kurtenbach in 2006 and was just wrapping up lab work when he died. The biggest challenge for her was learning how to cope with the loss of someone who was "amazingly passionate about your work."

"I was very shocked," she recalls, "and a bit worried about what would happen to the group." She misses Kurtenbach's supervision and his encyclopedic knowledge of the field. "He was also a very good writer, and now that I am trying to write my first paper, it would have been great to have his input," she adds.

The trick, she believes, is to stay motivated, come up with a plan, and stick to it. Also, "It's important to realize that you won't be left on your own, but the type of help you have will have changed," Vollmer says. She adapted well to her new Ph.D. supervisor, who was already marginally involved in her research, and welcomed the new ideas he brought onboard. "Klaus and I were very close to the work, so the fresh perspectives were really useful," she says. "Our work has also probably broadened slightly because of these influences from different people, which I think is a good thing."

Neill advises trainees in such situations--especially students--to seek someone to talk to, even psychological counseling. "Often people are very relieved to find that their emotions are a normal part of grieving," Neill says. But it's important not to jump into important decisions--such as abandoning your Ph.D. A "Ph.D. is a huge commitment, so it is not surprising that the loss of the supervisor might lead to some people feeling they just want to give it up," Neill says.

The help of others

(Courtesy, Remy Ware)

Mike Majerus (left) died in January of mesothelioma. Remy Ware (right), a postdoc in his lab, took on teaching his classes and leading his lab and field station. "Mike died so quickly that we didn't really have time to prepare ourselves properly," she says.

In January, Mike Majerus, a geneticist and passionate evolution advocate at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, lost a short battle with an aggressive form of mesothelioma, which had been diagnosed just 2 months before. For friends and colleagues, it could not have happened in a worse way: "We had to cope with knowing what was going to happen, yet Mike died so quickly that we didn't really have time to prepare ourselves properly," says Remy Ware, who met Majerus as an undergraduate student at Cambridge and went on to complete a Ph.D. under his supervision.

At the time of Majerus's diagnosis, Ware was a postdoc in his lab working on the ecology and genetics of the harlequin ladybird, a high-profile invasive species in Britain. Having known Majerus for most of her academic career, Ware lost not just a colleague but also a mentor and a friend.

David Summers, head of Cambridge's Department of Genetics, and Majerus's colleague for 20 years, shared her shock. "Mike's death was a great blow to our small community. It was very sad."

"In any bereavement, you would ideally have time to mourn the loss and recover before moving on," says Edinburgh's Neill. But that's not always possible. Majerus died just as the teaching year was about to start, so the department had to scramble to reassign his work. Ware took over his teaching and took a lead role in his research lab and field station. Grants had to be renegotiated, Ph.D. students had to be looked after, and classes had to be prepared. Ware's position as a Peterhouse Research Fellow had to be redefined to accommodate the new teaching role. There was little time for mourning.

Ware got help from Cambridge's counselors, who visited the lab and helped to bring the group closer. Despite all of the support, she struggled to cope with the personal grief and to move on without Majerus's guidance. "I felt as if I had been thrown in at the deep end," she says. The trust Majerus had demonstrated in her was a great source of strength, and it was her main tool for coping with his death: "Even when I was a student, Mike treated me as equal; he gave me classes to teach and responsibilities to handle," Ware says.

Almost a year after Majerus's death, his ladybird lab is doing well. "The research interests have changed a bit--we are now more focused on the ecology of invasive species," Ware says. "We survived through people's good will," adds Summers, noting the contributions of staff members from other departments and other universities. "Academia can sometimes be difficult, but it's reassuring to know that when it really matters, people are there to help," he says.

Photo (top): Herry Lawford

Sara Coelho is a former Science news intern.

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