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Dr. Louise Showe Reflects on 40 Years at Wistar

January 26, 2024

Enter Dr. Louise Showe’s office, and you’ll see the evidence of a life lived at the intersection of family and science. A photo taken by her son of a Florida panther hangs on her door. Drawings from her grandkids are tacked prominently above the credenza or sit nestled on her desk, perched amongst binders of research data and stacked manilla folders. The walls are adorned with abstract paintings and black-and-white photos. A pastel-colored vase sits on the windowsill, overlooking The University of Pennsylvania’s Cohen Hall in the background. This is clearly an office that has developed a unique personality, one that has been curated by the woman who has inhabited it for the bulk of her career at Wistar.

A career, it turns out, that wasn’t even part of her plan.

Dr. Showe arrived at Wistar somewhat by chance, after a random phone call she received in 1983 from The Wistar Institute.

“I was working at CHOP, and the phone rang. When I picked it up this voice on the other end said, ‘would you like a job?’ And I said, ‘I already have a job!’,” she recalls, laughing.

And now, 40 years after that fateful call, Dr. Showe has finally decided the time is right to hang up her lab coat and retire from The Wistar Institute.

A skill in demand

In 1975, Dr. Louise Showe received her graduate degree in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania, before venturing to Basel, Switzerland and the Biozentrum der Universität Basel for her postdoctoral work. While in Switzerland, she focused on researching bacteriophage – viruses that infect and replicate in bacteria cells – and brought that expertise back to Penn, and eventually to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

When she received the unsolicited job offer to join Wistar, she had been working as a researcher in the Hematology department at CHOP for only 8 months, having moved there from the University of Pennsylvania. But that research background in bacteriophage development had given her the experience Wistar needed to clone and characterize genes including those rearranged genes involved in chromosomal translocations evident in a variety of cancers. “The Wistar Institute specifically sought me out because it had the tools to map these chromosomal rearrangements, but did not have the expertise needed to clone them,” she explains. “At that time the only laboratories successfully doing genomic (gene) cloning were laboratories who knew how to manipulate bacteria and bacteriophage to make the reagents that you needed to perform that cloning.”

It took some time to convince her that Wistar was the ideal place for her research, but in the end, the institute won out. “The science at Wistar was so exciting, and it fit in very well with my expertise and my goals,” she recalls. “I also liked the size of Wistar, the administrative support and the ability to interface with all levels of the organization. It was an environment where I felt I could make an impact and change things.”

So, in 1983, Dr. Showe left CHOP and joined Wistar, bringing with her a rigor that surprised some people.

“The first thing I did was check all the benches in the lab to make sure they were level,” she explains. “They thought I was crazy, but when you’re screening the libraries [of bacteriaphage], they’re on these small agarose plates. If the benches aren’t completely level, it can really mess up the screening process.”

In fact, it wasn’t long before Dr. Showe determined why Wistar had been having such trouble performing genetic cloning in the first place. “They had invested in automated washing systems to clean the glassware, but it left some sort of residue that affected the bacteria enough that they couldn’t successfully grow the bacteriophage,” she explains. “We had solved that problem while I was in the lab in Switzerland. I had them immediately install a glass still to make the water for preparing the growth medium and start hand washing and sterilizing any glassware used to generate the cultures and extracts needed for the genomic cloning.”

A family affair

As a working parent of three children – one daughter and two sons – Dr. Showe was thoughtful about how her working life may impact her home life. In an era when the working world wasn’t always sympathetic to the demands of family – especially for women – she was conscious of finding a balance that would work.

“I had taught at Haverford college for six years, so I understood the requirements of that position. I knew that if I went into academia, I would have to teach and do research while trying to balance a family,” she explains. “I felt I couldn’t handle all three. I really loved the research and decided that I had to try to make a go of it.”

Juggling the two also had its challenges. She reflects on one instance when she was running late to pick up her daughter from daycare near Valley Forge Park where she lived.

“I can remember arriving at a closed daycare, and my daughter was sitting on the curb with one of the staff members, waiting for me” she recalls. “There was no happy face! When I think of it now, I laugh, but it was a challenge at times. I swear to this day my daughter still brings that up.”

An evolving career

Since first joining the institute, Showe has seen five directors and many changes at Wistar, but it’s still clear she loves her science and the impact she’s made here.

“I’ve always been really interested in developing technology,” she admits, “and I get a lot of satisfaction from doing that and seeing other people use those technologies to solve other problems.” In fact, Showe founded the Genomics Core at Wistar in 1995 and formed the first bioinformatics group in her lab to help understand that genomics data.

Dr. Showe has spent the latter part of her career developing biomarkers to predict whether a lung nodule detected by CT scan is benign or malignant based on gene expression in a simple blood sample. Reflecting on the work, she says, “the lung cancer work was a big challenge and whatever happens I think we’ve contributed to the expanding interests of using signals in peripheral blood to understand a variety of bio-medical problems.”

It’s that kind of problem-solving that has kept Dr. Showe engaged in her work. “When I go to sleep at night, I’m still trying to work out problems in my head,” she continues. “I’ll ask myself, ‘What am I missing?’ So, quitting has been complicated – there are not many 83-year-olds in the Institute and it is certainly not necessarily the best path to take.”

That vast knowledge and institutional memory have been a benefit to younger colleagues, who see Dr. Showe as a mentor. “I meet frequently with many young researchers,” she says “I’ve always told them you have to pick your battles and never make it personal. You can speak your mind, but you have to decide what’s really important and put your focus there.”

When asked what she’ll do once she’s no longer in the lab, Dr. Showe chuckles and explains that her daughter has been asking that question for quite some time. “‘Do you have a plan Mom?’ Well, we’re still thinking about what’s next, but I don’t think I’ll be sitting around knitting.”