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Michelle Wehling-Henricks, Physiology

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Patricia Jordan
  • Published Feb 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Michelle Wehling-Henricks says that when she started college, 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 her dissertation.

Wehling-Henricks focused her research on the effect of nitric oxide on a form of muscular dystrophy. She knew that 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," Wehling-Henricks 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, Wehling-Henricks 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," Wehling-Henricks 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." Tidball has particular reason to be proud of Wehling-Henricks's accomplishments, because it was his invitation that brought her to his lab from Pepperdine University.

Wehling-Hendricks began at Pepperdine as a business major taking a required science class. But Professor Laurie Nelson, her physiology teacher, wondered aloud whether Wehling-Henricks might be interested in pursuing a science major. Nelson "convinced me it was something I could do," Wehling-Henricks says, "and I made the switch."

Having changed her mind about science, Wehling-Henricks was primed for conversion on another issue. At UCLA, she was told that some teaching was a degree requirement. "I didn't want to do it at first," she says.

But it was love at first class. Wehling-Henricks 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, Wehling-Henricks 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.