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Thursday, December 01, 2022

Strawberries and Javelins: The Double Life of Mark Porter

Porter studies plant breeding and strawberry crops as a Ph.D. candidate while tossing the javelin for Florida track and field

Florida track star and javelin thrower Mark Porter is a Ph.D. candidate learning to grow and perfect the taste of a strawberry.
Florida track star and javelin thrower Mark Porter is a Ph.D. candidate learning to grow and perfect the taste of a strawberry.

Mark Porter is done for the day. 

One of the newest members of Florida track and field’s javelin team stands adjacent to the Percy Beard Track at James G. Pressly Stadium having just completed his first competition as a Gator at the 2022 Florida Relays April 1. 

Porter finished in second place out of 14 competitors, his top throw just under 69 meters long. It wasn’t a poor effort for an athlete whose situation permits limited access to proper training grounds.

Porter has swapped out his athletic tank top and shorts for a blue tracksuit. He watches relay runners sprint by through his orange-tinted sunglasses and enjoys spending the time watching his fellow Gator athletes perform. His short red hair is tossed about by a soft afternoon breeze. 

It’s not often Porter has the opportunity to be in Gainesville. In fact, it is only the sixth time he has ever stood on his home track. He is perhaps the most non-traditional student-athlete the University of Florida has to offer. 

Porter, 23, is a plant breeding Ph.D. candidate who spends his days at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma, Florida, one of a dozen such facilities operated by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The Gulf Coast REC, which sits 30 miles south of Tampa, Florida, is where Porter attends online classes and spends countless hours researching strawberry breeding techniques to create the most vivid flavors and colors. 

Oh, and he happens to be one of the best collegiate javelin throwers in the nation. 

Porter began his javelin journey as a freshman at Reading Memorial High School in his native  city of Reading, Massachusetts. During his time with the Rockets, Porter won a state championship in 2016, an all-state title in 2017 and tossed a personal best 59.13 meters. 

After high school, Porter found himself at Penn State University, where he graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s in plant sciences. Porter walked on to the PSU track and field team his freshman year and set new personal records each season, culminating in a Big 10 javelin championship last May, where he secured the title with a 72.89-meter throw. 

He is the proud owner of the second-best javelin throw in Penn State history, a 73.94-meter toss achieved in March of last year. Porter also participated in two NCAA championships, placing 13th in 2019 and 12th in 2021.

***

So, how did a kid from the Northeast find himself chucking 800-gram sticks and growing strawberry crops in the Sunshine State?

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For Porter, it all started with a stroll through the grocery store. 

“You see all these different things [at the store],” Porter said. “You see purple cabbage. You see green cabbage. Cabbage that's different sizes, different shapes. I just think that's so interesting, the natural variation. Being able to harness that and look at all these different strawberries and that sort of thing really makes me happy.”

Porter found himself at a crossroads after graduating from Penn State last Spring. 

A plant sciences degree in hand, he knew he wanted to continue his studies in graduate school and have it lead to a career as a breeder. 

His parents, Tom and Christine, obtained doctorates in biochemistry from Purdue University, so it can be said that Porter himself was bred for this path. He also had one year of collegiate javelin eligibility left, granted to him by the NCAA after COVID-19 took down the 2020 season. 

While considering the plant breeding options for a master’s program, Porter looked into programs at the University of California-Davis and the University of Georgia. He was on the cusp of committing to attend school in Athens, Georgia, when he was contacted by doctors Vance Whitaker and Seonghee Lee. They spoke to Porter about a new Ph.D. initiative that would be offered at UF starting in the Fall 2021 semester. 

They wanted him to be a part of it. 

The strawberry emphasis and breeding opportunities stuck out to Porter immediately. It was enough for him to change his mind.

“I instantly knew I wanted to work in strawberries with them,” Porter said. “It is a great program and a fantastic setup to study plant breeding. There's enormous support for it at Florida and there's a really good central core of plant breeders here.”

The “central core” Porter speaks of includes 27 faculty spread across the state who have trained more than 60 plant breeders over the last decade, according to the UF/IFAS website. The new Ph.D. program is the only one in the state of Florida and seeks to provide a more focused curriculum where each student can hone in on researching one crop. 

In Porter’s case, strawberries were his crop of choice. Florida holds 10,500 acres of land dedicated to the state’s strawberry crop, with the prime growing season running from November to the end of March. Of those acres, 9,000 belong to cultivars from UF/IFAS, whose strawberry research dates back to the 1940s and has been a driving force for the industry’s growth over the last several decades. 

At the Gulf Coast REC, Porter is simply picking up the torch from all the plant science lovers who came before him. He is one of only seven students who began the program in August. 

“My project mostly revolves around understanding strawberry flavor,” Porter said. “What we want to do is be able to breed a better and more flavorful strawberry, which sounds straightforward, but it's pretty difficult to get. What we know is that sugar is very important for  the flavor and how much that consumer likes it.”

Porter’s work includes crushing up strawberries and analyzing the volatile compounds that create the sugary taste. Through tedious experimentation, he can find the different genes that control the compounds and breed for those genes. 

The mission of his and UF/IFAS’s labor is to engineer crop varieties, strawberries among others, that farmers will want to grow and then sell commercially to the folks who don’t have to think twice about what genotypes were crossbred to create their delicious fruit. 

“Eventually we will have a strawberry that produces all these wonderful aroma compounds essentially,” Porter said. 

So how does the javelin fit into this equation? It’s not something Lee, Porter’s academic advisor and assistant professor of horticultural sciences, ever expected to find one of his top research students participating in, let alone at such a high level. 

Porter’s javelin side-hustle first came to light during his admissions interview. 

“I never imagined it,” Lee said. “It was kind of a surprise when I interviewed Mark before we offered him a letter [of acceptance]. He mentioned his athletic talents. He does the research very well and also focuses on the javelin.”

After illuminating his soon-to-be advisor, Porter was offered an empty field outside the facility for all his javelin-throwing needs.

“I don't know how serious he thought I was but it ended up that I was using [the field] for javelin,” Porter said. “They are in full support of me. They love to see me doing other stuff. I'm grateful to be in the situation I am in.”

Lee and Whitaker spoke with Dr. Surinder Chopra at Penn State’s corn genetic lab, where Porter completed an undergraduate internship. Chopra reassured them that Porter would be able to handle the rigor of his classwork and his javelin commitments. 

He also praised Porter’s work ethic and devotion.

“I have no doubt about Mark,” Lee said. “He can handle both his practices in the field and the research in our lab. When I saw Mark’s application, I said ‘this is the one’ and I interviewed him right away.”

***

Porter’s training regiment has changed drastically since his Penn State days, but he has managed to adjust well to his new environment and make time for practice tosses amidst his intensive studies. Javelin practices have dwindled from 15 hours a week to five. Porter has one-to-two days per week to rehearse his technique. His teammates in Gainesville have five.  

“I just found a way to make it work,” Porter said. “I can’t train as much as I’d like, but it’s worth it to me to do both.”

He attempts to squeeze in a workout most mornings, or evenings if it is a heavy day of experiments, at Gulf Coast REC’s gym or the local Crunch Fitness. The field he practices on sits unused near the strawberry plots, a short walk away from his dormitory. Each weekend, he heads out to the open grass and fires away. 

"It’s presented a unique challenge, but we’re making the best of what we’re doing," Porter’s throwing coach Eric Werskey told ABC affiliate WFTS. "This dude is creating the next best strawberry, and he’s going to compete and help us at a very high level."

As the sweet smell of strawberries swirls through the air, so too does the javelin of Mark Porter. 

He begins his sessions with standing tosses, where he plants his feet firmly to the ground and relies on his upper body to power the throws. Slowly but surely, he incorporates his lower half into his motion and eventually charges forward leading up to each hurl to deliver maximum force. This mimics the 120-foot-long runway Porter uses during NCAA competitions. 

“At least 70% of this comes from the legs, and then it's just transferred to the arms, generating all that force,” Porter said.

Javelin is a very technique-based event, according to Porter. Flexibility and freedom of movement are the keys to success. One doesn’t have to be the strongest person in the world to launch a javelin over 60 meters. 

"He totally understands training methods. He’s had success in the event, too. He understands it, and I trust that part of it,” Werskey said.

Although he may be at a competitive disadvantage being away from his team, the rows upon rows of strawberry crops provide Porter with a healthy snack to get him through each day.

“I don't want to interfere with our research, because we have plots that are set up for certain purposes, but we grow rows of strawberries just for picking and eating,” Porter said.

The most athletically accomplished student to ever walk the seemingly endless fields of the Gulf Coast REC has no problem helping himself. 

“I will probably never get strawberries from the store again.”

***

Mark Porter is done for the day. 

Having thrown his final javelin in the open practice field, UF track and field’s only Ph.D. student-athlete retires to his dorm at the Gulf Coast REC. 

There will be an abundance of strawberries to research tomorrow, and plenty more javelins to toss. 

One question remains. Will he miss the sport when his time as a javelin athlete is over after this season? The answer, of course, is yes.

“I’ll miss being a part of the team and being able to compete,” Porter said. 

Although his time with Florida track and field will be short and sweet (pun intended), he is locked into the plant-breeding Ph.D. program for the next four-to-five years at least. There is much work to be done, both on the javelin field in the near future and in the laboratory in the long run.

For Mark Porter, the best days – and the boldest strawberry flavors – are yet to come.

Contact Ethan Eibe at eeibe@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe





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Ethan Eibe

Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators volleyball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.


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