Elena Shumay, a molecular geneticist and staff scientist with the Laboratory for Molecular Imaging in the NIAAA, died at the age of 58 in Long Island, NY on October 5, 2015 after a long battle with cancer.  It is simply not possible to overestimate the loss in future knowledge nor the void in joy and wonder, which her early passing has left in the lives of her colleagues and friends and family.  Elena had the innocence and joy of a child.  And yet she was brilliant, with an incredible capacity to comprehend complexity and rapidly learn what others would never manage to understand.  She also had the capacity to ask the most interesting and funny questions, such as why are there no fat spiders!!!!!  And she had answers……….. And all of these things she did with a twinkle in her eye and a big smile.

            Elena was born on March 12, 1957 in Kirow, a large industrial city about 600 miles northeast of Moscow. Her mother was a teacher of French language at school, and her father was a chief economist at a large industrial plant. 

            As a child, Elena had health problems, and her parents decided that she would benefit from swimming.  They enrolled her in a swimming class and by the time she was in high school she was already swimming in a junior national team! At the same time, she was one of the best students at high school. This tradition of being the best in anything she did continued through her entire life.

            After graduation from high school, Elena decided to study sports medicine so that she could work with the national team.  The only institution teaching sports medicine in the former Soviet Union was Tartu university in the nowadays Republic of Estonia. Although teaching was provided in the Russian language, Elena became fluent in the Estonian language and was soon indistinguishable from the Estonian students. 

            Elena had a passion for mountain climbing.  She trained under the guidance of skilled climbers in alpine camps in several mountainous regions of the Soviet Union from season to season.  In this way enthusiasts could hone their skills to the point where they could be climbing independently without restrictions or supervision.  It was during one of these training cycles in 1978 that she met Igor Shumay, a graduate student in the Physics Department of the Lomonosov Moscow State University and a member of the university mountaineering club.  They were married shortly after Elena’s graduation in 1980 and had 2 children, Anna born in 1981 and Ivan born in 1988.  They continued climbing together at every opportunity although this was not without risk.  In particular, in 1986 Elena was on route with another climber in Tian Shan mountains on the border with China, when an unexpected snow storm suddenly came up.  Elena and her climbing partner were lost; nobody knew where they were and it was snowing even in the base camp.  Fortunately, they were rescued by another group that happened to be on a nearby route.

            By the time that Elena graduated from the university as a surgeon, she knew that practicing medicine was not for her; rather she set her sites on a career in research.  She got a job first in the Institute of Virus Preparations in Moscow and later became a graduate student at the Central Advanced Training Institute for Physicians. She had two thesis supervisors, Prof. A. G. Bukrinskaya and Prof. A. A. Kushch.  She was working in the lab at the Institute of Virology, where she later became a research scientist. There she learned the techniques of working with live cells, cell biology, hybridoma technology, and monoclonal antibodies.  She built a solid foundation for a career in research and received her PhD degree in virology from the Institute of Virology in Moscow in 1992.

            About a year after his birth, Ivan began to have seizures.  The family was advised to seek an evaluation and treatment abroad and in 1993, Elena and Igor brought him to Montefiore Medical Center for an evaluation.  Igor quit his job as an associate professor at the physics department and found a position in Germany at Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching near Munich where there were more opportunities for treatment for their son.  The entire family moved to Germany in summer 1993.  Elena soon found a position at the Gesellschaft fuer Strahlenforschung (GSF), currently renamed to Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, in Munich in the lab of Prof. Erfle.  She got a position of a visiting scientist doing research on cell biology, apoptosis and other problems in biology.  Her skills were recognized and in 1996 she became a staff scientist at the newly formed pharmaceutical company Bavarian Nordic Research Institute where she worked for another 3 years.

            Igor’s contract with Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics was extended two times, each time by one year, until in 1996 he was offered a research scientist position at the university of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Erlangen.  The family relocated to Erlangen, but Elena kept her research position in Munich.  Thus, she was commuting about 120 miles to Munich staying there in a tiny apartment during the week, initially by train and later, after she finished a driving school in Munich, by car.

            In 1995, Ivan was additionally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder compounding the urgency to find other opportunities for treatment.  After exhausting practically all opportunities available in Germany, they were told that perhaps they could find treatment in the United States.  Igor left Germany in May 1999 to take a job with Quantronix, a laser company located on Long Island.  Elena and the children joined him in the USA two months later.  In the fall of the same year Elena obtained an H1B visa and started working at Stony Brook University at the Department of Pharmacology in Prof. Craig Malbon’s lab where she became an expert in confocal microscopy. 

            Driven by a desire to learn more about the brain, Elena learned about brain imaging research at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  She joined the PET Imaging group at BNL to set up a genetics laboratory in 2006 with partial support from an exploratory research grant.  She applied for and received a K award from NIH that allowed her to take training on medical and experimental mammalian genetics.  She created a very original research focus in the in silico and experimental analysis of genomic architecture with a view to epigenetic modifications.  She has performed groundbreaking work on the methylation status of genes related to the brain dopamine system and its relationship to brain receptor/transporter and enzyme levels determined by PET.  At the time of her cancer diagnosis, she was deeply involved in mining brain imaging data to discover many intriguing relationships between brain chemistry, behavior and genetics.  During this time she mentored many summer students and interns, to their great benefit.  With the dismantling of imaging research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2014, Elena joined the Laboratory for Molecular Imaging at NIH where she continued her imaging genetic research of addiction.

            Living in the United States, the Shumay family continued their active outdoor life visiting many national parks, hiking all high peaks in the Adirondack mountains, several times were on Mt. Washington, Banff National Park in Canada. Winter months were for skiing in the Catskills and the Adirondack mountains.   Elena also loved the arts, classical music and paintings in particular.  In Europe, the Shumay family explored architecture and museums of many cities in northern Italy (Milan, Padua, Verona, Venice) and Toscana (Florence, Lucca, Sienna, Pisa), visited  Louvre and Musee d'Orsay in Paris, Gallery Uffizi in Florence, museums of Vatican in Rome, Salvador Dali home and museum in Figueres (Spain), Pinakothek in Munich. In the USA, they were frequent visitors at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, museums of fine arts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.  Elena was brought the whole family to concerts in New York City 2-3 times a year.  She admired architectural marvels by Gaudi in Barcelona and paintings by Sandro Botticelli in Florence.  These were especially appealing to her soul.  No one knows to what extent her innovative ideas in science were inspired by arts, but there must certainly be a connection.

            Among other Elena’s hobbies were cooking and gardening.  Elena also had a very good taste in clothes and made many of her own clothes.  She was incredibly creative in anything she undertook. 

            Elena Shumay is survived by her husband Igor, her son Ivan, her daughter, Anna and two grandchildren, Maximilian (4 years old) and Nina Jane (2 years old), who were her anchor and who brought joy and wonder into her life.   With her passing, the world lost a remarkable human being.

Photos of Dr Shumay with family and colleagues










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