When Anicca Harriot went viral in 2016 for calculating the angle of her “dab,” she became a national sensation. But for the girl who knew she wanted to be an astronaut since she was nine years old, that was only the beginning. In 2018, she is standing on the campus of the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine realizing her dreams of, not only reaching space one day, but also changing the very heart of space exploration— something she didn’t even know she could do all those years ago.
Annica Harriot hopes to become the first African American woman to go to Mars. (Courtesy Photo)
“This is my favorite story,” Harriot told the AFRO, “When I was in the fourth grade, I decided that I wanted to be a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon and an astronaut. And my dad saw my passion and told me that I could probably study how the heart changes in outer space. At the time, that didn’t sound like a real thing. But lo and behold, here I am all these years later and that is essentially what I do.”
Harriot is a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology PHD student and her research deals with something called mechanotransduction. Essentially, it’s the research of how the lack of gravity during space missions affects astronauts’ muscle and bone cell function. Simply put, she works to create therapies to protect astronauts from losing muscle mass and bone mass in outer space.
Currently, the main way that astronauts keep from developing degenerative diseases like osteoporosis is to keep up a lot of exercise in space. This requires them to spend hours a day staying active, which means that they can’t use that time to conduct experiments for exercises, that are not necessarily fully effective. Often times, when astronauts return to Earth, their road to recovery is still long and arduous.
Annica Harriot first became famous after she posted a video calculating the degrees of her dab, a dance move she is seen doing above. (Courtesy Photo)
With the right therapies put in place to protect astronauts, though, Harriot thinks that they could see increased efficiency in the work that they’re able to do in space. That means there could be an increased potential for sending people to Mars and other deep space travel missions in the future.
“I think my work is the first step in realizing that greater potential,” Harriot said, “and it also increases the number and duration of space missions that one individual can do in their lifetime.”
Harriot’s academic career began at Poolesville High School’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program. Located in Montgomery County in Maryland, it’s one of the top programs in the country. After graduation, she was accepted to Regent University where she earned her undergraduate degree in Biophysical Sciences in just three years. Then, just six weeks later, she was starting her PhD program at the University of Maryland
Since 2016, she’s been named one of Mortherboard VICE’s “Humans of the Year”, been featured as a speaker at the Congressional Black Caucus in 2016 as part of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, and she’s appeared in classrooms all across the country because of that viral video where she calculated the angle of her “dab,” a popular dance move.
At first, she just thought it would be funny meshing science and dance, but she was surprised that it became a way for teachers to get their students actively involved in math lessons. For students to reach out to her and say they were excited about seeing her video in their classrooms was inspiring. Since then, she’s become even more passionate about changing the way people portray the future of STEM.
“When I talk about paving the way for others or being an example… I don’t mean to inspire young women to be interested in STEM. They already are,” she said, “there are a lot of young women of color that want to be in STEM, but they don’t see it as a place for them. So showing that it is, is what’s most important to me.”
When asked what advice she might give little girls aspiring to pursue careers in outer space, she said they can start now by getting to know what goes on underneath the hood of a car. It turns out, it may not be as different from a space vehicle as one might think and it can give you a leg-up when it comes time to apply for a spot in NASA’s space program.
Harriot’s ultimate goal is to become the first African-American woman to go to Mars. In fact, when she earned her undergraduate degree in 2017, she became eligible to apply to become an astronaut and a pilot.
There’s just one thing standing in her way.
“I think I should get my driver’s license first,” she said laughing, “That might help.”
If her professional circle is any indication, she’ll be off to the red planet in no time. Right now, she has the full support of Jedidah Isler, the first African-American woman to get a PHD in Astro Physics from Yale. Further, Harriot has recently formed a relationship with Margot Shetterly, author of the best-selling book Hidden Figures, which highlights Katherine Johnson’s breakthrough achievements within NASA.
Shetterly told the AFRO, “Anicca is one of those exceptionally talented people who’s going to be running the world one day, sooner than later if we are lucky.”
To this, Harriot only laughed and whispered, “No pressure, right?”