When a key member of a team is lost, the work does not have to come to an end.

When Michael Pisaric was two years into his PhD, he travelled to Watson Lake in Canada with his supervisor, Julian Szeicz, and graduate student Tammy Karst-Riddoch, to collect sediment from several lakes in Yukon and in northern British Columbia. Szeicz was a geographer at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, who worked on reconstructing ancient climates. The trio hoped that the samples would reveal how climate had influenced tree-line dynamics in the region over the past 10,000 years.

As they trudged through the snow and negotiated a series of switchbacks, a snow avalanche roared down the hill and covered them. When it cleared, Pisaric was buried up to his shoulders and there was no sign of Szeicz. Karst-Riddoch dug Pisaric out and they ran down the hillside to call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who recovered Szeicz’s body later that day.

These sorts of tragedies are rare, devastating and hard to deal with. The loss of a principal investigator owing to an accident or illness can not only set junior lab members adrift emotionally, it can also put their careers in jeopardy. But they can establish ways to keep their careers from becoming unhinged (see ‘Setback savers’). Collaborative networks can help to keep funding in place, and a hard look at the progress of their research and career path will help them to work out where to go next.

→ Keep reading this story in Nature

Written by Hannah

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