Anicca Harriot (she/her) is a Biochemistry & Molecular Biology PhD Candidate at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the mechanisms responsible for skeletal muscle atrophy and injury. Anicca plans to use her degree to explore the effects of long duration space missions on the human body and hopes to someday venture out into the final frontier for herself.
I love that the science I do allows me to be imaginative. I love that it requires me to expand my thinking beyond the questions someone in my field would typically consider. As a biochemist and molecular biologist studying space biosciences, I get to delve into questions of how the most unfathomable environments we can encounter can affect the way organs, cells, and even molecules function in our body.
In my line of study, I focus on gravity – or the lack thereof, really – in spaceflight. As someone who’s currently earthbound, I’ve been able to explore many different analogs and strategies to investigate how astronauts’ bodies might respond to the conditions of the final frontier. Occasionally, I’m able to study samples and receive data from experiments conducted with mice on the International Space Station, but that’s not always the case.
Many scientists, myself included, observe the changes that astronauts experience in space – like loss of muscle mass or decreases in bone density – and find models, right here on Earth, that produce those same effects. For me, that means studying the aging process, muscular dystrophy, or even just long-term bedrest. Of course, those are all very different conditions and part of my job is to investigate the differences in those groups, but I spend far more time focused on what connects them. Ultimately, I like to think that what I study are the molecular structures that connect us across space (literally!) and time (aging!).
Occasionally, we’re tasked with coming up with experimental models on Earth that mimic microgravity. That’s where we get wacky sounding, but useful experiments like suspending mice so that they spend a portion of their lives tilted at an angle. As unorthodox as it may seem, these innovative approaches to mirror the perils of spaceflight here on Earth give me insight into how we can better prepare humans for history’s greatest endeavors in exploration.
I often get the question of why we should care about spaceflight research. In my experience, studying space biosciences is nothing more than an exercise in imagination and application. By taking such a vastly different approach to studying the human body, by investigating how the elements of the universe impact biological function, the questions I’m able to ask and the answers I’m able to find become limitless. In the end, the things we learn about bodies in space can help improve the quality of life here on Earth in ways that we could have never understood had we not taken the opportunity to think past our current condition. By choosing to look beyond in such a unique way, I can learn more about what is within.
More about Anicca
Anicca serves as the Chief of Community Development for #VanguardSTEM: Conversations for Women of Color in STEM, an online community that asserts the right of women, girls and non-binary people of color in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to fully represent our STEM identities and interests, without assimilation. Anicca’s passion for advocacy and prominent influence has led her to being recognized as one of Motherboard’s 2017 Humans of the Year, a 2017 Young Futurist for The Root, and most recently as a 2020 President’s Fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.