The author’s left hand.
I draw great satisfaction from investigating what no one has ever seen but that we all experience every minute of every day. While some of us look far into the expanse of sky above us and try to glimpse the beginning and the end of it all, and others contemplate the infinitesimal workings of space-time itself, I merely seek to comprehend what is around me: the living world. In particular, I want to understand the mechanics of life at its smallest scale. I want to look down at my own hands and know exactly what lies beneath — to peer inward, past the skin, deep into a cell, and visualize what that crazy complex soup really looks like. I’m not sure if it’s pure curiosity that drives me, or if my motivations are more selfish. In trying to grasp how living systems operate, I have learned to appreciate the miraculous and flawed nature of my own existence.
Within every living system there exists order and chaos simultaneously. For example, the way lipids line up tail to tail in a perfect bilayer to create cell membranes, the way amino acids turn an angle of exactly 100 degrees in a protein alpha helix, the perfect four-fold symmetry of an ion channel protein — this order is aesthetic, and necessary for life. But without chaos life would be without diversity. The chance mutations that occur during DNA replication, the ability of some genes to literally transpose themselves in the genome, the unpredictability of gene expression during development — this chaos creates new physical characteristics, making every individual unique and more able to drive the species forward. I find great beauty in this balance of order and chaos, perhaps because this concept echoes my own aboriginal teachings and upbringing. The delicate balance of life must always be respected.
I, too, enjoy thinking about the universe and its vast mysteries, but the microcosm of cellular biology is more immediate to me. Studying the minuscule requires a rational intellect but also abstract creativity, providing further balance to my life. The hidden world, the life within the cells of my own hand, can be revealed if one is clever enough. In fact, this is our ultimate challenge, and the animus of science: to understand what lies beyond the palpable. Rheanna Sand is a PhD student in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Originally published October 17, 2008