World-class athlete finds success in lab, too
For Volker Mai, born and raised in the former East Germany, coming to America after the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t just about continuing his success as an international track star, but about completing his biomedical education.
“The socialistic country I considered my home country was no more,” Mai said. “So I said, ‘Hey, if I’m going to live in a capitalistic society, then I want to live in the best. And that’s here in America.’”
The 45-year-old still holds the world record for triple jumping by athletes under age 20 (57 feet, 5 inches) as well as the overall East German record. He competed in international track events from his teenage years in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s. In 1984, he made the East German Olympic team, but he couldn’t attend because of an Eastern-bloc boycott.
Now, after more than 20 years in the U.S., Mai is an assistant professor of microbiology and cell science at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, or EPI. And though he decided against medical school, he still works to improve public health.
Mai, a member of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said he found that he much preferred the part of science “where you can understand how things work at a molecular level.”
After earning a microbiology doctoral degree from the University of Georgia in 1999, he obtained a master’s from Harvard School of Public Health. He worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., then as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Medical School.
It was there he met Glenn Morris, now the EPI director. When Morris accepted the position, he brought Mai as part of his team.
Since arriving at UF in 2007, Mai has continued searching for ways to use the trillions of microbes that live in our guts for improving health.
His achievements include finding gut microorganisms in premature infants that appear linked to disease risk, working to establish a microorganism profile that may be associated with colorectal polyp risk, and better understanding how foods and substances affect gut bacteria.
Mai says being an athlete prepared him well for a career in science.
“You have to be quite disciplined, hardworking and dedicated as an athlete,” Mai said. “It is the same in science. While athletes often compete alone and for every winner there has to be a loser, successful biomedical science can only be done in teams … If our team is successful in finding means for improving public health, everyone wins.”