Morgan Scholar Mikayla Harris Earns $15,000 Astronaut Scholarship
Senior Biology Major Is Second Consecutive Morgan ASF Award Recipient
For a second consecutive year, Morgan State University has produced an Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) award winner. Mikayla Harris, a senior from the School of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences (SCMNS), is among the 60 students from 44 universities across the nation who were awarded a $15,000 ASF scholarship for 2021.
The highly competitive Astronaut Scholarships are awarded to top-performing junior and senior students studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) with the intent to pursue research or otherwise advance their field upon receipt of their final degree. Selected for exhibiting initiative, creativity and excellence within her elected academic course of study, Harris is Morgan’s second ASF award recipient in two years: Micaela Fleetwood was an ASF scholarship recipient in 2020.
“I wanted to apply to represent Morgan State as well as Black women in STEM,” said Harris. “There is not enough biomedical research that includes black people, people of color and other minority groups.”
A nonprofit organization, ASF was established by the Mercury Astronauts in 1984. Its goal is to aid the U.S. in retaining its world leadership in science and technology by providing scholarships for exceptional college students pursuing degrees in those fields. Since that time, astronauts from the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle programs have joined in this educational endeavor.
Harris came to Morgan, like many first-year students, beaming with potential and promise. With three years of study under her belt, this Biology major with a Chemistry minor has blossomed to embody Morgan’s commitment to research, innovation, and production of future leaders in STEM, though she admits that STEM was not her first love.
“I am a violinist, so I planned to become a musician. I had not intended to pursue science, but I fell in love with exploring my inquisitions specifically in biomedicine. I truly want to help people and serve my community,” Harris explained.
“In learning more about Morgan, specifically the Student Research Center, I learned all about the research avenues that there were for people who were matriculating into STEM fields. There were a plethora of opportunities to create your own research projects,” she added. “Morgan has given me so many opportunities to think outside of the box and create research projects with my amazing PIs (principal investigators), Dr. Douglas Dluzen and Dr. Ingrid Tulloch.”
Today, Harris has successfully transformed her once budding interest into an impressive resume of undergraduate-level research here at Morgan. Fueled by her desire to uncover the inner workings of the human body, Harris has fully embraced her passion for STEM, focusing her research on racial health disparities. Her efforts have delved into a number of topics related to health disparities and inequities that are prevalent among people of color, particularly discrimination and its effect on brain inflammation, stress hormones and other inflammatory hormones in the body. Prior to the fall 2021 semester, Harris spent the summer at the University of Maryland, College Park, contributing to a research initiative that explored the sex differences in endothelial cells—cells that line blood vessels—and how they relate to cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure, in white women versus Black women.
Harris credits her work with MSU’s Student Research Center as being extremely instrumental, in addition to her active membership in Morgan’s RISE-REACHeS program, which she joined at the behest of Cleo Hughes Darden, Ph.D., chair of Morgan’s Biology Department. RISE takes an innovative approach to preparing Morgan graduates to enter Ph.D. programs in the biomedical sciences.
“Going into the Morgan RISE program, my eyes were opened to the various avenues that I could research in science and opportunities to explore my curiosities,” Harris said.
Poised to graduate in Spring 2022—a year early—Harris punctuated her last year of studies at the National Treasure in grand fashion, being named a recipient of the prestigious ASF scholarship. She applied for the Astronaut Scholarship through the Student Research Center and in collaboration with Gerald Whitaker, Ph.D., director for Defense and Space Programs at Morgan, and the University’s Astronaut Scholarship Foundation liaison. Like Harris, applicants will be tasked with submitting a personal statement, a curriculum vitae (CV) highlighting research activity, and a minimum of two recommendations.
In addition to receiving a $15,000 scholarship award, Harris had a very rewarding opportunity to represent Morgan at the Scholar Technical Conference in Orlando, Florida, and will benefit from professional mentoring for a full year by scholarship alum, a C-suite STEM executive or possibly an astronaut. As an ASF awardee, Harris will also participate in a professional development program and attend foundation events, as well as being inducted into the national Astronaut Scholar Honor Society. Harris was honored, along with more than 50 other members of her ASF cohort, at the ASF Innovators Gala, in Washington, D.C., where she was recognized for her achievements. and received her Astronaut Scholarship award.
Despite the title her scholarship award, Harris has no real desire to travel beyond Earth’s stratosphere, setting her sights instead on a more terrestrial course in research. Said Harris, “Space biology is super interesting. It’s just so cool. Research in inhabiting places in space and how the human body is affected in space is super interesting. It would be really interesting (to research) how gravity affects the muscles and structures of the human body.”
One thing is for certain: Harris’ Astronaut Scholarship award represents a milestone achievement for this accomplished Morgan student researcher and future scientist. Upon completion of her bachelor's degree program in 2021, Harris plans pursue a MD-PhD degree and advance her studies in racial health disparities, with a particular interest in examining the variances found in female infertility.
“I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Morgan. Morgan has definitely prepared me for opportunities like this scholarship and upon graduation, I will be prepared for opportunities to pursue what I really am interested in, which is helping my community and underrepresented individuals.”