Graduate Student Profile - Michelle Wehling-Hendricks (Molecular, Cellular, & Integrative Physiology)
When she started college, Michelle Wehling-Henricks says she "didn't have a whole lot of interest in science. I didn't think I'd be very good at it." She was wrong. Now a graduate student in the interdepartmental program in Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Physiology at UCLA, she's finishing work on a dissertation showing that nitric oxide creates significant improvements in the well-being of mice who have a fatal form of muscular dystrophy.
Nobel prize-winning research by UCLA's Lou Ignarro showed that nitric oxide is widely present in human bodies. While "no one really knows why it's in muscles or what it does there," Michelle says, scientists do know that the enzyme that produces nitric oxide is missing in people who have muscular dystrophy. Reasoning that the enzyme might be related to the disease in some way, Michelle bred a mouse that has the same genetic defect as human Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients with a mouse that has an implanted gene that helps produce nitric oxide. Their offspring have both the disease and the transgenic-nitric oxide producing gene.
"The mice produce normal amounts of nitric oxide, and we see huge improvements in their pathology," Michelle says. Her discovery "is not a cure for the disease, but it might be a clue to what's going on."
Her adviser, James G. Tidball, says the findings "might be important in developing treatments for muscular dystrophy" in people, not just mice, "because it may show that nitric oxide-based therapies may be useful." Such a development would offer hope to the boys who are afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and their families. A genetic disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy begins to display symptoms when boys start missing normal motor milestones at two or three years of age. By twelve or fourteen, patients are often confined to wheelchairs, and few live past twenty.
Her dissertation research is the culmination of Michelle's laboratory experience at UCLA. Over the years that she's worked with him, Professor Tidball says he's found her to be "a highly talented and effective young researcher." And, he points out, "Michelle has also shown that she has great promise to become a superb teacher. While she was enrolled in the master's program in Psychological Science, she was highly sought as a teaching assistant because faculty knew she would do an excellent job. She also gave several guest lectures in courses I've taught, which were always well received by the students."
Professor Tidball has reason to be proud of Michelle's accomplishments, because it was his invitation that brought her to his lab from Pepperdine University, where she won an award as an outstanding graduate in the sports medicine program. At UCLA, she won fellowships supporting her work in 1998, 1999, and 2001.
But it was an earlier mentor who made the most dramatic change in Michelle's career. As an incoming freshman, Michelle was registered as a business major. Then, in her second semester, she was required to take a basic science course, and she ended up in Professor Laurie Nelson's physiology class. Professor Nelson wondered aloud whether Michelle might be interested in pursuing a science major and asked why not. At a time when Michelle was questioning her choice of business studies, she found that science "was something that I really enjoyed learning." Professor Nelson "convinced me it was something I could do," Michelle says, "and I made the switch."
Having changed her mind about science, Michelle was primed for conversion on another issue. At UCLA, Michelle was told that some teaching was a degree requirement. "I didn't want to do it at first," she says. "Why would I want to be a teacher," she asked herself. "I just barely figured out I could do science."
But it was love at first class. Michelle particularly enjoys teaching introductory courses in science. "Students are hearing things for the first time, and they get really excited," she says. "It's just a total charge for me."
And the conversion was permanent. When she completes her dissertation, Michelle will stay on at UCLA to do some research and teach part-time. But her long-term goal is clear: "I enjoy the research, but I think I'd like to focus on teaching," she says. A place like Pepperdine would be ideal.
She'd have a mentor waiting for her there. Michelle has never lost touch with Professor Nelson, and she appreciates the gift she received from her college mentor. "Professor Nelson had such a positive effect on me," she says. "I'm hoping that I can turn that light on for someone else."
Published in Fall 2001, Graduate Quarterly