"Representation Matters:" This Scientist With Ankylosing Spondylitis Works On Mars

An interview with real life professional Martian, Dr. Tanya N. Harrison, Ph.D., about how she manages AS while also managing a rover on Mars

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Dr. Tanya N. Harrison, Ph.D., calls herself a professional Martian, and it is clear she is once you know what she does for a living.

Tanya spends her days exploring Mars as a science team collaborator on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) “Opportunity.” In addition to her work as a planetary scientist and the director of research for Arizona State University’s space technology and science (“NewSpace”) initiative, she regularly tweets about living with ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

HealthCentral caught up with Tanya by email to learn more about what goes on behind those tweets. This interview, edited for clarity, offers a glimpse into Tanya’s journey as a woman living with AS in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Tanya driving the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR) at the CSA “Mars Yard” near Montreal.
Tanya driving the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR) at the CSA “Mars Yard” near Montreal.
Canadian Space Agency

HealthCentral (HC): You call yourself a professional Martian, how did you get there and what do you do in your role?

Tanya: I’ve loved space for as long as I can remember and Mars, in particular, after watching the “Sojourner” rover drive around on the surface of the red planet from images captured by the “Pathfinder” lander in 1997. Shortly after that, in 1999, I got involved with NASA’s Mars Millennium Project for students to design a human base on Mars.

After getting undergraduate and graduate degrees, I ended up getting a job working in mission operations for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at a small space camera company called Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.

Now I work at Arizona State University continuing my Martian geology work and working in ops for the Panchromatic Cameras (Pancam) aboard NASA’s “Opportunity” rover. Being on teams for the rovers is such an incredible experience. Even though I’ve been doing this for years now, it still blows my mind every single day that we’re driving a robot around on another planet tens of millions of miles away!

HC: What do you love about your career? What has surprised you?

Tanya: You never know what you’re going to see each day, and that keeps things exciting. Maybe today’s the day the rover is going to spy the rock that unlocks our understanding of Mars! You never know. The biggest surprise … that’s a tough question. On a positive note, it’s how active Mars is. Stuff is happening there all the time, much more than I realized before it was my job to look at it every day: Weather, avalanches, dust devils, boulder falls, and more.

HC: What led to your diagnosis? Was it expected?

Tanya: When I was in grade school, I was a pretty active kid. I was an Irish dancer, played softball and (briefly) basketball, loved indoor hockey, you name it. But in grade five/six, I started to have a lot of joint pain and trouble running. By grade seven, I was having trouble walking because of the pain and stiffness and was taken out of gym class entirely. My parents took me around from doctor to doctor trying to diagnose the problem. It wasn’t until we went to the Children’s Hospital in Seattle that I got an initial diagnosis of “undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy,” which was more specifically refined to AS a couple of years later. It definitely wasn’t expected since AS typically hits middle-aged men!

HealthCentral note: AS is part of a disease category called spondyloarthritis, formerly known as spondyloarthropathy. Spondylitis is typically diagnosed between ages 17-45. While a greater number of men are diagnosed, with some sources estimating a ratio of 2-3:1, the number of women being diagnosed is growing.

HC: How does AS affect your work and vice versa? How do you balance each?

Tanya: Most practically, AS makes it extremely painful to sit at a desk all day. It has also involved a lot of doctor’s visits and hours spent in infusion clinics. Luckily when you work (virtually) on Mars, you can pretty much do it from anywhere if you’ve got an internet connection. That means that I can still do my work even if I’m at the Mayo Clinic, or at home in bed when it’s too painful to get up that day.

I try to take advantage of the periods when I am feeling decent to be hyper-productive. But over the years I’ve also learned to listen to my body and try to be more OK with accepting that there are days when I won’t get much done. You have to learn to be OK with that and let yourself heal when your body says, “Hey, I need you to slow down for me today, OK?"

Note: read more about daily life with AS here.

HC: You tweeted a picture of yourself in a medical gown this summer with a powerful message for those reading it. Can you say more about what you wrote and why?

Tanya: There was a point in my undergrad days when my health was so bad, I ended up having to withdraw from all of my classes. I had ended up with a severe infection while on immunosuppressants for AS that my body wasn’t fighting and ended up in the hospital for three weeks. It felt like such a blow, like I would never be healthy enough to finish school, let alone fulfill my dream of being a Martian scientist. My biggest inspiration at the time was Stephen Hawking — despite suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), he was one of the greatest scientific minds of a generation. I would think of him anytime I felt like giving up. If he could give lectures to sold-out crowds around the world, I could get myself to my physics class.

HC: How did the responses to your tweet affect you?

Tanya: I didn’t expect the tweet would get as much attention as it did. The responses were incredible and brought me to tears. Women in STEM don’t have many people to look up to, and those of us with disabilities have even fewer. I’m so happy that doing something as simple as posting photos of myself looking less than glamorous while in the hospital and sharing my story can help other people with disabilities of any kind feel like they can follow their dreams of becoming scientists/engineers/whatever they want. I’m not saying the path is easy, because it most certainly isn’t. But if it’s something you are passionate about, you can try to find ways to make it work for you.

HC: What’s your go-to hack for managing your AS symptoms and treatments while you’re traveling?

Tanya: Right now my main treatment is Remicade, which I get as an intravenous (IV) infusion every seven weeks, so I have to plan my infusions and travel around each other since it’s critical to not miss an infusion. My only other “hack” is, since I’m usually travelling for conferences, to stay at a hotel near the conference venue so that I can pop back to my room and lay down if I need to recharge. Conferences, in particular, can be rough with the combination of sitting and/or standing for extended periods of time.

HC: What else would you like to say about your journey with AS?

Tanya: It hasn’t been easy. Some days are better than others. Some days are awful and I just want to lie in bed and cry and feel sorry for myself. And sometimes that’s what you need to do, and that’s OK. But my love for Mars and space really keeps me going—because getting to play with robots on another planet is too cool to let something like AS stop me!

HC: Why is it important for women and nonbinary, transgender, and femme-identifying people with chronic diseases and disabilities to be represented in STEM?

Tanya: This ties into my answer for the tweet question above: Representation matters. Doing some retroactive psychoanalysis here, I think "young me" didn’t think much about the fact that there weren’t many women in science for me to look up to because having a disability seemed to affect my daily life much more than being a woman. But it definitely stuck out to me that Stephen Hawking was the only prominent scientist that I knew of with a disability. It made him seem like an outlier rather than the norm. And I don’t want that to be the case for people—I want everyone to believe they can pursue careers in STEM regardless of disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. You can be you, AND you can be a scientist!

Keep up with Tanya on Twitter and on Instagram, and rest assured, she does speak Martian, since, as she says, “all of the ‘Martians’ right now are robots we’ve sent there.”