Ireland indoor champion Louise Shanahan strikes the balance between elite athletics and quantum physics at Cambridge University | Sport at Cambridge skip to content

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Ireland indoor champion Louise Shanahan strikes the balance between elite athletics and quantum physics at Cambridge University

By Mark Taylor - original article can be found here.


“I quite like having the two because if things in the lab are going badly, I can tell myself ‘I’m a runner and the running is going well and everything is fine’.

“And if running is going badly, I tell myself ‘well, you’re a quantum physicist so the running is just an extra’.

“With sport there are a lot of ups and a lot of downs and it’s a rollercoaster, and having the two of them keeps me emotionally more stable and able to keep going.”

Louise Shanahan offers the perfect balance between life as a scientist and an ambition to race at the Olympics.

It would have been easy to slip in the word normal before life, but it would be fair to say that the role of a PhD researcher in quantum physics would be far from normal for your average person.

It should also be noted that Shanahan is not just a “runner”, as she terms it, using athletics as a source of escapism with a dream – she is an accomplished middle distance runner who is a double indoor Ireland champion.

But back to those studies and the reason she is at Cambridge, trying to use really small diamonds to measure the temperature inside human cells.

“What we do is, these diamonds have little defects in them. When you have a diamond ring and they have different colours, those colours are due to the defects but the colours, among loads of other things, are actually temperature-dependent,” explains 23-year-old Shanahan.

“So based on the colour the diamond emits you can work out what the temperature is. We have nano diamonds which are diamonds roughly 50 by 10-9 wide and we try to put them into cells and measure the temperature.

“At the moment we’re looking at different processes inside the cells and try to measure temperature using these tiny little diamonds.

“It’s quite nice because it’s quantum physics which is quite interesting and intense, but it’s an application of it which I quite like. It’s a really nice project.”

It was on a Nobel laureate ‘road’ at the University of California in Berkeley that led to this branch of science.

Shanahan was in the US on an exchange programme as part of her undergraduate degree and each day upon leaving class would see a line of posters. One struck a chord, as she explains.

“They have loads of these posters up that are supposed to motivate the students and one of them was ‘remember when cancer couldn’t be cured over the counter’.

“That one just really stuck with me. I thought it’s so far from where we are now, but the idea that in the future that cancer wouldn’t be a death sentence – it would be you took a tablet or did something, but it wasn’t a big deal anymore – really resonated with me.”

Having gone back to her undergraduate degree in Cork, she started working in Cork University Hospital on radiation therapy.

It led to looking at cancer treatment and how radiation can be reduced in the diagnostic part of treatment.

Having explored opportunities at Cancer Research UK, Shanahan felt it was heading a bit too far towards biology so opted to do a PhD in quantum physics, tied to cancer research.

It narrowed down to her current course at Trinity College or one exploring proton therapy centres and trying to reduce the amount of unnecessary radiation that children receive, which was in London.

The appeal of being in a smaller city was a decisive factor to now being based at the physics and medicine building at the Cavendish Laboratory.

The other passion, of course, is athletics and that brings a huge amount of satisfaction.

“I really enjoy running and going for a run, and I love the guarantee that if I run six days a week – and I’m in the gym the other day – every night when you go to bed, you know no matter what happens you’ve achieved something, even if it’s five miles easy in the morning,” she says.

The thing is, it is not just about enjoyment.

Shanahan is heading into the elite athlete bracket.

Her father, Ray, was a top-level competitor and national endurance coach for Ireland before Shanahan was born, and was head coach of Cork university at the time.

But when her younger brother arrived, her dad took a break from the sport so it left his daughter to find her own way in athletics.

Aged 11, Shanahan made it through the first round of trials in the 80m, but she missed the second round as they were visiting family in Australia.

“I was absolutely furious with my parents,” she says. “My mum said the only thing they could do to calm me down was take me to the local athletics club to qualify next year.

“We turned up at the local athletics club, and my dad said ‘it’s an hour training, there isn’t really time to go home in between, so it is either go for a walk here or if you would like I can help out’. The person at the gate said yes sure, and sent him over to the long jump pit.

“I think the next week one of the big coaches arrived and said ‘what on earth are you doing with Ray Shanahan in the long jump pit? Get him out of there now’.

“So he started coaching the middle distance group at the local athletics club and he coached me pretty much the entire way until I came to Cambridge, with the exception of the year I was in America.”

Shanahan, who races for Leevale AC, followed in her father’s footsteps last March.

She won her first national title by taking success in the Irish Indoor Championships 1,500m, a title that Ray had won in 1988 and 1989, making them the first father and daughter to achieve the feat.

It was not the biggest win of Shanahan’s career to date though, that came in 2013.

As a 16-year-old, she went to Utrecht for the European Youth Championships in 2013, and took glory in the 800m.

But she splits her career in two, having suffered a navicular stress fracture in 2015 and being told that it was possible she would not be able to run again as, without its own blood supply, it can take a long time to heal.

The success in 2013 may have come in the 800m and the win in 2020 in the 1,500m, but Shanahan sees herself predominantly as an 800m, with the shorter distance being her favourite.

It is just that working with Cambridge University’s Hare and Hounds coach Phil O’Dell, they identified the need to increase the mileage.

“If you want to be a world class 800m runner, you need to be a reasonably good 1,500m runner – neglecting that distance was probably one of my weaknesses,” says Shanahan.

“We worked quite hard over last winter to get stronger, and last year I raced both 800m and 1,500m.

“Ideally, I would have run more 1,500m, but in the summer when we were finally allowed to race, you were only allowed races up to 800m.

“I think it is definitely becoming a faster and faster event, but if it was a sprinting event it might be a little easier as we wouldn’t have to do all the mileage over the winter!

“We kind of get the best and worst of both worlds.”

Shanahan has earned Ireland vests at youth, junior and under-23 level, so the next breakthrough will be the senior squad.

And that feeds into future targets.

“Since I’ve been nine years old I’ve wanted to qualify for the Olympics so that bit is pretty easy,” says Shanahan.

“Over the next couple of years, hopefully I can qualify for the World Student Games next year. I guess I will always have an eye on Tokyo but who knows how easy or hard it’s going to be to get in this year based on the current system.

“I have half an eye on Tokyo, but for me the big one next year is the World Student Games and then after that I would like to try to make Irish senior teams for Europeans, Worlds and then Paris 2024, which is my big goal.”

Balancing that ambition and her studies has been helped at Cambridge by the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme.

It is a scheme that provides funding for elite sport students to access strength and conditioning, nutrition and physiotherapy.

“To come to Cambridge and have a system I could fall into naturally, really helped. And the Hare and Hounds are really supportive,” says Shanahan.

“I often struggled with having girls to train with back at home, whereas there are plenty of girls to train with here and there are loads of guys.

“I will always have someone to run with here – I don’t have to do much of the training by myself which is really helpful in the big winter session.”

Maybe it will all lead one day to Shanahan becoming an Olympic medal-winning quantum physicist.


You can find out more about the UCAPP programme here