In the Lab: Louise Shanahan is hoping to become a full-time athlete after submitting a PhD thesis

The Cork native has a busy year ahead preparing for the Olympics and the European Championships.

IRISH 800M RUNNER Louise Shanahan is explaining the details of her thesis that will hopefully make a vital contribution to improving cancer treatments.

louise-shanahan-celebrates Louise Shanahan crossing the line in the 800m final at the National Athletics Championships this year. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

A physics undergraduate from UCC, she began this project when she moved to Cambridge University in 2019 to pursue a PhD in quantum biophysics. And now she has two weeks to go before she must submit her work — hopefully in time for her to enjoy her Christmas break at home in Cork.

The thesis involves placing diamonds into cancer cells, worms, or small biological systems, and studying the relationship between temperature and viscosity inside living systems.

Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense. The science of all that is for her to understand, and she’s fluent in the laboratory language. She simplifies it all by using an analogy involving honey to make it easier for The 42 to keep up with her explanation. 

The rewards of her toil will hopefully be enjoyed by the patients who need it most.

“We treat cancer on a macro-scale where you say that a person has a tumour,” she begins, “and we will treat this region of their body to try and get rid of the tumour. We want to move to micro-scale treatment where we can say that one cell has cancer, the other doesn’t and we will treat the cancerous cell but not the cell that isn’t cancerous.

“If you want to do that, you want to be treating cells on a sub-cellular level and you really need to understand what’s going on inside the cell. You need to target specific parts of the cell, which is quite important. And that’s where we come into it.”

The thesis is Shanahan’s but she’s working as part of a group. She’s thankful that the worm-handling is the responsibility of another member while she can focus on the physics portion of the project.

“I leave all the worm stuff to her! If she tells me she’s got a worm on the microscope, it’s just better not to look. The bio isn’t my favourite part of it.”

Shanahan makes it 22-and-a-half years that she has spent in education. There won’t be a 23rd year. For now at least. When she hands in her thesis, she intends to commit herself entirely to athletics for 2024. And perhaps beyond that if it’s a good fit for her. 

She grew up in an athletics household, making her her first track appearance at just six days old. Her father Ray was the national endurance coach at the time, and in Shanahan’s eyes, becoming an athlete was her birth rite. She failed to make the school’s athletics team when she was in second and third class, before eventually forcing her way in by joining Leevale AC.

“In Cork, we have the Cork School Sports where they basically take the top two girls every year per school and they race. I just could not make my school team and that really upset me because I kind of grew up on a track.”

louise-shanahan Shanahan after qualifying for the European final in Munich in 2022. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Sailing was her first sport of choice growing up while hockey and Irish dancing were among her other interests. But at some point, running flipped a switch in her head to become her priority.

“I felt this was my family’s sport and not making my school team did not go down well at home from my point of view, not my parents’. And when I couldn’t make the team in second or third class, Dad said I could join Leevale and I did make the school team the following year.

“When I was 13 or 14, something changed. I did a bit more running and a lot less sailing.”

Shanahan made the balance work between running and education from that point on. Even the imminent submission date for her thesis hasn’t caused any major disruptions. The frosty weather over the last 10 days is about the only thing that has interfered with her training.

However, there’s a big 12 months ahead for Shanahan with red circles around the Paris Olympics and the European Championships that are coming down the tracks.

“I’ve never run full-time before so it’s going to be quite different for me. I’m going to South Africa for January [for a] camp which will hopefully be a little warmer than here. Who knows? I might absolutely hate it and in September, I might be looking for a job or going back into education again.

“I’ve worked really hard over the last couple of years and I owe it to myself to give running full-time a go. I might absolutely love it and run full-time for the next five years.”

Shanahan already has Olympic experience under her belt after competing in Tokyo, as well as two World Championships and a European final already banked. She’s traded the Irish 800m record with Ciara Mageean in recent times too. In 2022, she took it from Mageean with her 1:59.42 before Mageean yanked it back earlier this year with her time of 1.59.27.

Shanahan had an Achilles and ankle injury to deal with in the last year amidst all that record tussling. The ankle bother was particularly annoying as it was caused by a freak slip on some gravel to put her season in doubt. She recovered though to claim the 800m crown at the national athletics championships in July.

She’s been working with coach Phil Odell since relocating to Cambridge, making significant strides in her athletics career as well as in the field of medical science. She has to show her work to the University in the next two weeks before she can start showing her credentials for Paris and more in the new year.

“I was walking into the lab this morning thinking about what the next year will look like,” Shanahan says looking ahead. “We have a busy summer with the Europeans and the Olympics. I don’t think you can ever be complacent as an athlete. One injury and your entire season can fall apart. One bad step and you can sprain an ankle.

“But I’m really proud of the last couple of years that myself and Phil have put together. We’ve had the Tokyo Olympics, Oregon World Championships, and Budapest World Championships: three world championships in three years. And a European final in Munich. It’s been really consistent and I hope I can kick on to the next level. I do think there’s a lot of areas that I can improve [in] and I do believe I can run quite a bit faster than I have.

“But there’s no guarantees with athletics so it’s about enjoying the process and taking the good days and celebrating them when they come.”

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