June 30th is a marked day for Ela Patel, Scientist 2 in the Neuropathology Lab at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. That is the day Patel is retiring, after 39 years of staining brain tissue. She is a cornerstone of the Center, and began her career under the late Dr. William Markesbery in 1985.
Her start was serendipitous. Originally from Nairobi ,she earned a chemistry degree from Bromley College in England. She and her husband were living in Lexington with their young daughter who had started school. Patel began looking for a job at the university, and a contact knew of a job posting at the new Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and encouraged Patel to apply. Once she did, Patel quickly received a phone call from Dr. Markesbery and she soon had a new job!
Patel had never worked with brains prior to being hired at Sanders-Brown. After a little training, Patel got to work on Dr. Markesbery’s Program Project Grant (PPG), which was the first grant to study Alzheimer’s disease at the Center, the first brain bank study! Patel quickly learned brain anatomy. She created a system for categorizing the brain tissue. Patel was able to work independently, and she valued the team atmosphere that Dr. Markesbery created. He was always eager to hear her suggestions to make the lab better.
Patel worked on the NUN Study, taking pride in doing most all of the staining and photography herself.
Patel also had the opportunity to assist with the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study that looked at cerebrovascular pathology and dementia. This 14-year study allowed Patel the opportunity to travel to Hawaii a few weeks at a time each year to do silver staining of brain tissue and then mail the slides back to the Center for review. There were several issues with this study, and Patel was vital in problem solving. One issue was bacteria growth in the distilled water which caused cloudiness. Patel discovered they needed new water. With her contributions to the research, the study succeeded.
Over the years, Patel, along with all of the researchers at Sanders-Brown, have increased our understanding of neurodegenerative disease. All dementia is not all Alzheimer’s. In fact, there are many things that cause dementia. Patel’s work has been instrumental in allowing us to see Alzheimer’s disease plaques and tangles, Lewy body lesions, and even TDP-43.
Dr. Markesbery died in 2010 and at that time Patel considered leaving the Center. She thoughtfully evaluated her career and the work she was doing. She loved the way Dr. Markesbery had looked after all of the staff. He had been a good man to work for, and with. Soon, Dr. Pete Nelson became the head of the Neuropathology Lab. Patel decided to stay. She explained, “Pete treats us like family.”
That was 14 years ago, and Patel is finally ready to retire. When asked what has kept her at Sanders-Brown, she thinks about the variety of research she has been able to do. She beams with excitement. “It’s like a different adventure every day!” There is a lot of staining, but the research is not monotonous. She loves that no day is ever the same. When looking ahead, Patel says she will spend time with her family, especially her grandchildren who range in age from 3-15 years old. She also plans to travel and volunteer. As a retirement treat to herself, she and her childhood friends are planning a trip back to their birthplace, Nairobi, in May 2024. Patel, full of joy and hope, finally shares, “This has been a wonderful place, and I have so much faith that we, as a Center, everybody working together…we are going to fight this disease really well and end dementia!”