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Meet: Dr. Michael Wiederhold

Principal Investigator for development of vestibular organs in microgravity

photo of dr. wiederhold in lab

Who I Am

aerial view of university of texas 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.

aquarium with snails 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!

Personal Information

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 now.

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!

photo of dr. wiederhold's team

Dr. Wiederhold's team


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