Jennifer Malik is a few months away from earning a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from The Ohio State University. But that’s not the only way she’s been keeping busy: Malik also became the latest Buckeye to win a national championship.
Malik competes in cyclocross – a form of off-road bike racing that features grass, dirt, mud, gravel, sand and physical barriers, which require riders to constantly dismount and remount their bikes.
“Cyclocross is basically taking your bike over all the things you don’t think it should go over and then doing it anyway," Malik said.
In January, Malik took home the gold in the Collegiate Club Cyclocross National Championship in Reno, Nevada.
Malik only started competing four years ago, but already she’s racing in over 30 events per year. She said she uses the sport as a way to unwind from her demanding Ph.D. program.
Malik’s thesis examines new treatments for patients who experience chronic ear infections, something she researches by using computer models to develop updated drug delivery methods. Her professional goal is to eventually eliminate the need for children to undergo operations for Eustachian ear tubes.
“Cyclocross is definitely my escape when I can’t get a [computer] model to work,” Malik said. “Sometimes, I just need to take a step away, go outside, ride my bike and burn off that negative energy. Sometimes I even come up with new ideas try in the lab when I’m on the bike.”
Many of the women Malik competes with have difficult day jobs. She said her female competitors are doctors, biochemists, engineers and other STEM professionals.
“It’s really interesting that the women’s field is dominated by individuals who can manage these rigorous full time jobs, and then also manage full time racing as well,” she said.
Malik said she hopes to eventually make the U.S. Women’s National Team. The team accepts the top eight riders, and Malik is currently sitting in the top 15.
She also expressed a desire to help other women find joy in cycling. She recently formed a mountain bike team that hopes to encourage other working women to ride.
Malik said the hard part is convincing women that they can, in fact, do it all.
“You can keep your full time jobs and still compete on the pro-level,” she said.
Cyclocross requires determination and lots of preparation. Malik trains between 10-18 hours per week by biking, running and practicing yoga for core strength. But no matter how many hours she pours into the activity, she says she has to remind herself why she competes.
“If you get too obsessive over something, you’re going to miss the whole reason of why you enjoy doing it,” she said.