There's an interesting article in The Scientist about what happens when a lab's principal investigator dies. A tragedy, certainly, for his or her family. But what about the members of the lab?
Graduate students are especially vulnerable, since their project, and the fate of their degree, is usually tied to a particular lab for up to five or six years. Career research scientists who have devoted themselves to one lab can also be cast adrift, and valuable data living only in a notebook or in the shambles of a messy desk can be permanently lost. But there's more, explains Jef Akst:
In labs heavily weighted towards bench work, the fate of the laboratory equipment is of obvious concern. "This stuff then becomes the [institution's] property because in truth that's the original grant awardee anyway," said Robert Bellin, currently a biochemist at the College of the Holy Cross and a postdoc in the lab of Merton Bernfield at Children's Hospital Boston when Bernfield died of Parkinson's disease in 2002. But "people don't feel that way," he said. "They feel like this is Bernfield lab stuff."
What to do? Planning ahead is key, particularly if you're a PI who is already struggling with serious health problems. But given that unexpected death, is, well, unexpected, it's best for all researchers to make their results and data as understandable and accessible as possible (one researcher in the article set up a computerized database to store her data from long-term field studies). And thinking about who in the lab might be senior or experienced enough to replace you, or even take over your grant, might be a good idea as well.
Or you could just go ahead and work extra hard on that anti-death elixir. Yeah. I choose that one. Now get to work.