Meet: Dr. Michael Wiederhold
Principal Investigator for development of vestibular organs in microgravity
Who I Am
I am a professor in the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery
at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. In my
laboratory at the Health Science Center, we have high school students,
medical students, research assistants with both bachelors and masters
degrees as well as M.D. and Ph.D. Research Associates and Fellows.
Role for Neurolab
My investigation for this mission is focused on the development of the
gravity sensing portion of the vestibular system, which includes the tiny
stonelike masses (statoconia in snails and otoliths in fish) that give
cues for self orientation and balance. We will determine the effects of
microgravity on the formation of these masses in young snails and swordtail
fish during their early developmental stages. We expect that in space
the masses will become larger than those in ground-reared animals, to
compensate for their lack of weight.
We will video tape the crawling behavior of snails in microgravity to
see if it is different from the behavior of the control snails on Earth.
We hope to have snails mate, fertilize and develop in space so that we
can have this whole early development period occur in microgravity. When
they come back we will video tape their crawling patterns to see if the
reflex that causes Earth-reared snails to crawl downward will develop
in animals reared in microgravity where there is no "up" or "down."
Benefit of the Study
Not only will this study help us to better understand why astronauts
experience motion sickness in space, but will also provide additional
insight into some forms of motion sickness experienced by many here on
Earth. In the broader picture of aging adults, there is evidence that
as people age, the otolith mass in the inner ear loses some of its calcium.
What we're getting at are the mechanisms that control how the inner ear
forms these masses of stones. Hopefully, once we know more about their
formation, then we can get information about the processes that maintain
them as well. There are other pathological conditions in which people
have too many stones in the inner ear, or stones in the wrong places.
These studies will elucidate the mechanisms by which stones can be formed,
either normally or abnormally.
My Career Journey
In high school I did well in math and science courses, and teachers
always said, "Oh, you should go into science-or-engineering," and it was
always hyphenated. I was in college two years before I realized there
was any difference between science and engineering. I was in the electrical
engineering department at MIT, and I realized that I really didn't want
to be an engineer. I was more interested in basic research, so I almost
switched over to physics. Then Walter Rosenberg, who was the head of the
Communications Biophysics Group at MIT, gave a talk about neuroscience,
and I thought, "Hey, this is pretty neat stuff!"
When I interview kids applying to MIT, I always say very strongly, "Don't
commit yourself to a major too early. Take as much basic math and the
basic sciences as you can use in any field if you're thinking you're going
in the direction of science. Try out different fields before you commit
yourself. Some things may be different than what your high school teacher
told you they were."
When I thought about going into physics, I took some graduate physics
courses. Then I decided that the number of people who were going to make
significant discoveries in physics was very small, and neuro science was
just getting going on a firm footing. I thought, here is a place we can
make some real progress. (Note: When Dr. Wiederhold was asked if he would
like to go into space with his experiments, he replied, "No, I don't like
to get on a ten-foot ladder.")
Preparation for Career
I had done my Ph.D. thesis on the mammalian auditory nervous system,
recording single auditory nerve fibers with micro electrodes. I was working
on a group of fibers that goes from the brain stem to the ear, seeing
how that affected the responses of the auditory nerve fibers to sound.
There weren't very good techniques for recording from single cells, and
I wanted to find out more about transduction mechanisms in the sensory
hair cells in the inner ear. So I went to the National Institute of Health
and started studying the statocyst (a simple gravity-sensing organ in
snails and other mollusks) in the Sea Hare, Apysia. It was Muriel Ross,
another Neurolab P.I., who suggested that I propose work on the development
and physiology of the Aplysia to NASA. Our experiments on the snail are
a direct outgrowth of the earlier Aplysia.
At a Space Biology Planning Symposium in l983, I proposed my study of
the Aplysia statocyst. This was tentatively approved for the IML II mission
but the aquatic system to be used, developed by the Japanese National
Space Development Agency (NASDA), would not accept salt water. NASA headquarters
suggested, "How would you like to switch from slugs to newts (which the
Japanese were going to fly)?" I agreed and spent about six years working
on the inner ear of the Japanese Red Bellied newt. Now, with the snails
on Neurolab, we're finally getting back to what I proposed ten years ago!
I'm an antique buff: I collect antique silver. At the tail end of the
meeting I always go off and check out antique shops or flea markets. I
have a son who is a senior at MIT now majoring in chemistry. He worked
with us at Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 1994 on the IML II mission,
so he had a good time doing that and learned a lot. I think that sparked
his interest in biology. I don't know what direction he will end up going
Likes/Dislikes About Career
What I like least is probably waiting to be able to do things because
flights take so long to prepare. I had been doing some mammalian auditory
work which I didn't think was very exciting. So about ten years ago I
started switching over to Space Biology. For the IML II mission, I worked
with Japanese space agency and spent a lot of time in Japan. Now we're
working with the Germans, and I've been over there several times. Getting
to know how different people do their work, and the distinct differences
in different countries allows me to learn about different ways of approaching
problems and solving them. I've also made many friends all over the world!
Dr. Wiederhold's team