A desperate graduate student has put up posters on campus asking a thief to return his property. But Kai Schreiber doesn’t want his computer back—all he’s asking for is his life’s work.

“Hello, thief! On Saturday, January 28, at 1:20 p.m., you broke into my office on the 3rd floor of the Medical Sciences Building and stole an ATX-tower computer and a 17” monitor. On that computer is the data for my dissertation, programs and files which are worthless to you, but represent five months of work to me. Please burn the files in the folder c:/daten/ (~1.6 GB) on CDs and return them to me (most important are the subfolders promotion, tex, prog and delphi).”

The poster was signed “Kai Schreiber, Dept. of Physiology.”

Schreiber is a PhD candidate with the Department of Physiology. He knew exactly when the computer went missing because “there was a little program running on the computer connected to a network, and somebody saw precisely when that was disconnected.”

In a frustrating twist of fate, Schreiber had scheduled an automatic backup for two days after the computer was stolen.

“The thing that makes me a bit mad at myself is that I was starting to make a backup on Friday. The information was a lot, though, so I left it for Monday,” Schreiber said.

The missing data included an online study that Schreiber was conducting, unrelated to his PhD.

“I lost 80 subjects’ worth of data in a psychological study that I was currently running online,” he said.

Also missing is commentary Schreiber had written on a body of literature he had been reading since his last backup in August, containing approximately 160 papers.

A simulation Schreiber had conducted, along with supplementary photos, was also lost. “I’ll have to redo that simulation entirely,” Schreiber added.

The total damage is still unknown and will not become evident for some time. “I’ll begin to notice stuff missing as I need it,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber is no stranger to disaster, having lost two hard drives—and all their data— to crashes.

“I had two hard drives on the computer…. I had data backed up on one in case the other crashed… but of course that doesn’t help if both are taken away,” Schreiber lamented.

Luckily, the loss did not deliver a mortal blow to Schreiber’s work. “I had written a fairly large grant application in the recent weeks. Luckily, though, I sent it out a few days before the computer was stolen. If it would have been stolen a few days before, I would not have been able to submit my grant before the deadline, which was final. It’s a long-term grant, potentially for six years.”

Schreiber knows things could have been worse. “That would have probably crippled my career,” he said.

Nonetheless, he’s still bummed. “It’s always a pretty terrible blow if something gets stolen. That computer was actually used for experiments as well. The worst thing about this is that taking the computer is not making the thief much money.

“I talked to a lot of people about this, and their immediate response is: ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do a backup!’”

Schreiber advises other graduate students to always prepare for the worst. “Do a backup and do it now! You never know when disaster will strike.”