As a student at Sequoyah High School in Pasadena, Louise Siskel often finds herself keeping busy at an offsite laboratory workbench or, at times, at a NASA facility up north, at least when she isn’t doing her schoolwork.
As this year’s Rose Queen for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, Siskel said she’s been “a different kind of busy.”
“I definitely go to more events for this than with science stuff,” she said during a recent interview.
Siskel, a San Marino resident, has had a handle on her future for a while now. She wants to attend Johns Hopkins, Yale or the University of Chicago to study cellular and molecular biology.
To get ready for that, Siskel has been working on breast cancer research with a professor at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. Last year, she earned a NASA sponsorship of a research project that involves studying the way livers process drugs in the vacuum of space.
Her applying to be on the Rose Court, not to mention making it all the way to Rose Queen, served as a bit of a surprise on the radars of her family, Siskel admitted. Her mother, Abigail Deser, has humorously started signing her emails as “Secretary to the Queen.”
“I think my friends and family can attest that they never thought they’d see me on a catwalk,” Siskel quipped. “I almost ran down the runway.”
In seeking a coveted spot with the storied Pasadena tradition, Siskel admitted she was seeking a platform to reach her fellow females, whether younger, older or her peers. Her message is simple: Be your own kind of princess.
“I am not the princess or the queen ‘type,’” she told the Rotary Club of San Marino in November, during the Rose Court’s smorgasbord of appearances and events. “My childhood was more mud pies than dress-up tea parties, more ‘Lord of the Flies’ than Disney. I feel most comfortable standing at a lab bench on Tuesdays wearing an oversized sweater and lab coat and dancing to ABBA.”
Another feature Siskel has been proud to highlight is her rounded tortoiseshell glasses, which have been noted on multiple occasions by her and a variety of TOR people as probably a first for the Rose Queen.
“The glasses are a part of who I am,” Siskel said. “I almost never take them off. It’s been important that I stay true to myself and who I am.
“I have kids come up to me all the time telling me they’re proud to wear their glasses, or that they want to be a scientist, or be their own kind of princess,” she added. “It’s been a really touching experience.”
It’s been a busy experience, too. TOR officials are not shy about promoting the fact that the court participates in well over 100 events and appearances before and after the Rose Parade. Siskel said the advantage to this well-oiled machine is that the burden of planning is not foisted on her.
“Time management is not my strong suit, nor is being organized,” she admitted. “There have been a number of times where the Tournament of Roses van has pulled up to my house and I’ve just gotten out of bed.”
Asked if the process ever gets exhausting, Siskel didn’t mince words — it does, but that said, she affirmed that she believed in the mission of the Rose Court and in the outreach and service she and the rest of the court were doing for the Pasadena community.
“I’m always reminded of why the work we do is meaningful as soon as we step out of the van,” she said. “Each time we go to an event, it reaffirms my confidence in the work of this organization.”
One of these events was a solo endeavor on her part. One Friday morning in November, she visited her old stomping grounds at Sequoyah School’s K-8 campus. (Sequoyah High School, which is relatively new, is in a separate location.) There she was greeted by a sea of excited kids who wanted to meet the Rose Queen — dressed casually in a navy sweater, matching slacks and modest black heels — who once explored their campus.
There, Queen Louise fondly recalled the Sequoyah way, which included such exploits as her English class writing sonnets making fun of the teacher for failing to post the night’s homework assignment online. In addition to being the first queen with glasses and likely the first Jewish queen, Siskel was “definitely the first Rose Queen from Sequoyah,” she said.
“I actually applied [to the Rose Court] on kind of a lark,” she explained to her audience. “As I progressed further through the rounds, I realized the organization was really impactful to the community and that it was a great way to connect [to that community]. I didn’t realize how large the platform would be. A real Sequoyah value is inclusivity and kindness, and these are values I hope to share as Rose Queen.”
Josh Brody, head of Sequoyah School, introduced Siskel that morning, touting her as a key student in setting the curve for the high school’s first graduating class. He recalled a humorous moment earlier that morning, when Siskel walked into the front office and turned over a newspaper whose front page bore a photo of her, effectively taking a brief break from the unfamiliar spotlight.
“Louise does have the spotlight for the moment,” Brody told the school. “She is, of course, representing herself, most importantly, but I couldn’t have thought of a better person to represent Sequoyah High School.”
With the Rose Parade all but here, Siskel said she most eagerly awaits one specific moment of the event, based on what she’s heard from past princesses and queens.
“Everyone describes this moment when you turn onto Colorado [Boulevard] and you see all the people who have come to see you,” she said. “You really see the community you’re serving. I’m really looking forward to that moment, and sharing that with the six other girls this year will be special. They’re truly intelligent, passionate and compassionate. That makes it just a joy. They also share a similar sense of what our purpose is, which is one of inclusion.”
The past couple of months haven’t been all roses for Siskel. Wildfires have displaced scores of Southern California residents. Several congregants of a Pittsburgh synagogue were slain in a religiously motivated shooting in October. On Nov. 7, a dozen patrons of a bar in Thousand Oaks were killed in yet another shooting. Siskel, whose Rotary Club of San Marino appearance took place the next morning, led a moment of silence for the shooting tragedies.
“It’s been important to me that the experience here is not isolated from the real world,” she said recently. “That’s something that affects all of us, especially going into the holiday season. What I’ve encouraged people to do is turn to their communities and to people not like themselves and really welcome them into the New Year.”