Shelly Sakiyama-Elbert, PhD, and Don Elbert, PhD, are used to people assuming they live in Washington state.
The couple’s respective work in biomedical engineering and neurology has led them around the world — from graduate school in California to lab work in Zurich, Switzerland, to research and teaching in Missouri and Texas — but they haven’t yet landed in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite this, the couple’s background in biomedical engineering, which has strong research roots in Seattle, and the 16 years they worked at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri after graduate school, has led many people to assume they live in the Emerald City.
“When we first moved to work at Washington in St. Louis, everyone thought we were living in Seattle, Washington. They heard biomaterials and thought clearly that’s where you must be,” Sakiyama-Elbert says.
“There was always a chance someone would say, ‘Oh, I love salmon.’ And we would say, ‘We do too, but we’re not in Seattle,’” Elbert adds.
Now, however, that’s all about to change.
On July 1, Sakiyama-Elbert joined UW Medicine as the vice dean for Research and Graduate Education and Elbert joined as an associate professor in the Department of Neurology. The pair are coming from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and bring with them immense expertise and experience in biomedical engineering, neurology and chemical engineering.
Learn what led them here and what excites them about living in Seattle and working at UW Medicine.
How did the two of you meet?
Sakiyama-Elbert: We worked at the same lab in graduate school and had the same PhD advisor. Our PhD advisor was showing me around the lab, “Here’s so and so, here’s so and so, here’s Don.”
Elbert: We became friends doing things with the lab as a group. One of the fun things we did was take swing dance classes, that was a big part of how we got connected. Then the lab moved to Zurich, and I did a post-doc while Shelly did her PhD. We got engaged after dating for a year, married a year later, then both got jobs at Washington in St. Louis. We were there for 16 years, two kids and four dogs, two at a time, total. We went through UT Austin as part of the adventure.
What are your research and work backgrounds?
Sakiyama-Elbert: The past six years I’ve been in Austin in the role of department chair of Biomedical Engineering. One of the things that drew me to the position was Dell Medical School started in Austin recently at UT. I arrived in 2016 right as the first class of medical students was starting, and it was a good opportunity to get in the startup phase and build connections.
Before UT, I was at Washington in St. Louis (WU) in Biomedical Engineering. My lab was in plastic surgery for my first three years at WU. I was developing new materials for treating peripheral nerve injury, and plastic surgery had an excellent peripheral nerve research program. It was a great opportunity to integrate with clinicians and think about what problems they are facing in surgery and how we can design therapeutics that address their needs. That’s been a theme for me in shaping my research, understanding clinical needs and using my engineering background to design solutions . The gap between basic science work and what needs to happen for technology to be implemented in clinical settings — that’s where magic happens as far as translational research, moving those discoveries from the bench into the clinic.
Elbert: What I’m working on now is focused on Alzheimer’s disease primarily, and it touches on some other neurodegenerative diseases. We’re slowly but surely putting together a mathematical model of all these steps of how Aβ protein is produced in and cleared from the brain to better understand how it aggregates and forms plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease. But my path here was nontraditional. I started from the biomaterials world and over time moved into this area because there was a lot of data that was being collected and a lot of mathematical approaches, many of them statistical, and I felt that there was a huge need for more mechanistic mathematical models rooted in kinetics and other areas that are more traditionally in chemical engineering.
What are you looking forward to working on at UW Medicine?
Sakiyama-Elbert: I have enjoyed having one foot in engineering and one foot on the med school side, so that is intriguing about this opportunity, to really continue developing research in the UW School of Medicine and to help think about partnership. My research is interdisciplinary, and I enjoy finding those connections, bringing people together and determining how to facilitate collaborations.
I’m excited to get to know the research going on at UW Medicine better and to meet with the researchers. Longer term, I’m thinking strategically about how to continue to build the research enterprise and what opportunities are out there to leverage the outstanding research, local industry and unique clinical practice at UW Medicine.
Elbert: The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at UW has been around for many years, and they have been extremely active. I’m really looking forward to seeing the quantitative data people already have and helping to put that into the broader context of how Alzheimer’s disease develops and affects cognition. There are a lot of opportunities for collaboration. I’m also very interested in working with the data that’s being gathered by the Allen Brain Institute. In fact, right now the major thing I’m working on is analyzing this huge data set they share, and I have some ideas for how to use that data to incorporate the mathematical model I’ve already done.
What excites you about moving to Seattle?
Sakiyama-Elbert: I am excited to explore and be near the mountains and the coast again. I haven’t lived on the coast in decades, so that will be nice. I’m looking forward to exploring the city as well, and reconnecting with a variety of friends in different stages of life who live in the area.
Elbert: I’m looking forward to avoiding the extreme heat we’re experiencing now in Austin. I’m excited for the local environment in Seattle, the ocean and the mountains, hiking and being outdoors in the summer. I’m not sure after a while how I’ll feel about cold and rainy weather, but I won’t miss the 100-degree days going on for weeks.
What do you want your new UW Medicine colleagues to know about you?
Sakiyama-Elbert: I love meeting new people and hearing about their research, so just reach out. I’d love to hear more about what’s going on and specifically what kinds of connections people are trying to make with other disciplines.
Elbert: I’m open to collaborating and looking at data that people already have and know there is more to it, but just don’t know how to take it to the next level. In terms of fun things, I like to play guitar, and I was a reluctant youth soccer coach for many years, even though I’d only played soccer for one year in eighth grade — but I did have to coach against Matthew McConaughey’s team once.