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Scientist’s death halts unique research at UMass

UMass Amherst suffers double loss

“It would be impossible to replace her. There really isn’t anybody else remotely doing the kind of big-picture science Lynn was interested in,” said James MacAllister, an associate of Lynn Margulis (above).

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is shutting down a prominent laboratory after the death of the high-profile scientist who oversaw the research.

In most fields, that would be the end of the story: An employee passes away, she is replaced, and, professionally speaking, everyone moves on.

But in academia, things are rarely so simple. And Lynn Margulis’s death last year at 73, from a stroke, has presented UMass with a dilemma: What to do with the colleagues and equipment, not to mention unfinished work, she left behind?

The death of a working scientist is something every research university can eventually face. But there is no standard protocol for how to cope with it, and the circumstances of Margulis’s career and death provide a window on just how difficult that task can be.

Margulis’s research - an unusual hybrid of evolutionary theory, biology, and geosciences - often involved ideas so bold they met with widespread doubt.

Sometimes, she was right: She radically changed the way scientists view the evolution of cells. Sometimes, she was wrong: She did not believe that HIV causes AIDS.

The university cannot find a new professor to fill her chair. “It would be impossible to replace her,’’ said James MacAllister, one of her graduate students. “There really isn’t anybody else remotely doing the kind of big-picture science Lynn was interested in.’’

UMass is also not in a position to hang onto the lab’s unspent grant money - not that there is much of it. Despite Margulis’s prominence, most of her funding in recent years came out of the UMass provost’s office or her own pocket.

“We were on a shoestring,’’ said Celeste Asikainen, her graduate student and longtime assistant. “When I needed to buy equipment, she’d say, ‘Go borrow it.’ ’’

In short, UMass cannot keep a lab going with no leader and no funding. So Margulis’s huge collection of fossils and microorganism samples is seeking a new home, and her eight employees are dispersing with the winds.

At least one, MacAllister, who started his PhD at 64 just a few months ago, figures he will abandon his degree.

“Without Lynn here, there really isn’t anyone for me to complete my education with,’’ he said, adding: “It’s shocking just how unprepared for this kind of thing universities are.’’

Scientists outside UMass said roughly the same thing. Several told stories of universities that tried, and usually failed, to hang onto grants after the deaths of the recipients. Others said funding agencies had been generous, extending grants almost as a form of condolence, allowing institutions to wind labs down slowly and give employees time to find new posts.

Sometimes, a close colleague will take over a lab - the way spouses are occasionally drafted to fill Congressional seats - as in the case of Richard Spielman, a University of Pennsylvania geneticist. Spielman was deep into several complex projects when he died unexpectedly of an overwhelming infection in 2009. Vivian Cheung, Spielman’s collaborator in research and marriage, merged her husband’s lab with her own.

“He was writing a grant, and a day later he died,’’ she said. “I think the university wanted to just wait for a while and then say, ‘OK, people here are done.’ But I didn’t have the heart to do that.’’

James Staros, the UMass Amherst provost, said he could not remember another case there in which a principal investigator died unexpectedly and left loose ends.

True, he added, when scientists retire, universities face some of the same challenges in shuttering their labs, but at least those scientists are around to supervise.

And scientists nearing retirement very rarely take on new graduate students - unlike Margulis, who added three to her lab last semester.

One of those students, Sean Faulkner, said he feared he would have to change academic specialties but was too racked with grief to make that decision at the moment. On the other hand, he said, “Staying at UMass, working in the same building and the same department - I’m not really emotionally ready for that.’’

For now, the school is sifting through Margulis’s lab, trying to determine what should be passed around the department and what should be packed up.

Her papers will be saved by the Library of Congress. UMass is also scanning many of her images and “making an archive of tiny microorganisms that most people have never heard of,’’ said her daughter Jennifer, executor of her estate.

Some of Lynn Margulis’s specimens are likely to stay at UMass for teaching purposes. Others are bound for Barcelona, where her romantic companion of 29 years plans to enshrine them at a museum.

Many of her lab-mates would like to see her legacy continue at UMass, too.

The university held a memorial for Margulis in late March, attracting 225 people, including two from Korea who had never met her but were impressed with her work.

Asikainen, her assistant, said she hoped the university would go further and raise funds for a professorial appointment in Margulis’s name.

And MacAllister said he intended to continue the research he did with her - whether or not he gets his PhD.

Just before Margulis’s death, he said, the two of them discovered a small freshwater organism that appeared to have a strange type of bacterium living inside. It will take another six months to a year to fully describe the bacterium, but with help from colleagues at other universities, MacAllister is determined to see it happen.

Once the description of Margulis’s creature is complete, he said, the organism will be named after her.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.
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