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Skloot Defends The Value Of Curiosity

Assoc. News Editor

Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

skloot 4/26

Daniel Lee / Heights Editor

On October 4, 1951, cervical cancer cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks, and the future of medicine was changed forever. These cells, taken without Lacks’ knowledge, had the ability to proliferate indefinitely and to survive in vitro, making them the first “immortal” human cell line. The story of Lacks’ cells, which are now referred to as HeLa cells, is widely known because of the research and medical breakthroughs the cells have led to, including human genetic mapping and the discovery of the cure for polio.

The story of Henrietta Lacks’ life, besides the theft of her cells, was largely unknown until 2010, when Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that explores Lacks’ history, the famous theft of her cells, and the impact the theft had on her family.

In a lecture Wednesday night, Skloot explained the mystery surrounding Lacks’ personal life as a major inspiration that spurred her to write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

“I remember my high school biology teacher saying there were these amazing cells called HeLA cells discovered in the 1950’s and that the woman who gave them died,” Skloot said. “He said she was a black woman and then erased the board and that was it. I went up to him after class with all of these questions about her, but he said that’s all we really know. If you want to find out more and do a project on it, I’ll give you extra credit.”

These questions stayed with Skloot until her college years, when a writing assignment asked her to write about something that was forgotten. She chose Henrietta Lacks. The writing she did about Lacks as an undergraduate helped her get into graduate school, and then graduate school led her to write The Immortal Life, as all students were required to write a book to graduate. Skloot, who had graduated from college with a biology degree and had always intended to go to veterinary school before a creative writing class inspired her to become a writer, chose again to write what she knew most about: science. Though she intended to write about a number of women in the field of science, she ended up only writing about Lacks, and The Immortal Life was born.

One of the most important lessons Skloot intended to impart upon her audience, and especially the students in her audience, was to always follow the path of curiosity.

“Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you are giving up as long as you have another one to put in its place,” she said.

Skloot continued to employ this philosophy when she began to write her book, one that would eventually become a bestseller.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing as a journalist, all I knew is that I had this burning question that I had to find an answer for,” she said. “That led me to call Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The more I tried to reach out to her, the more I started wondering why she didn’t want to talk to people.”

Skloot’s interest in Deborah Lacks’ story completely changed the outcome of her book, for the better.

“Going into this book, I thought I would write about Henrietta and her cells, but it turned into a story very much about her family, and about my path of discovery,” Skloot said.

Once Skloot finished her book and brought the complete story of Lacks to light for the first time, she remembered some unfinished business.

“I tracked down my old biology teacher and sent him my book,” she said. “I attached a note that said here’s my extra credit paper, sorry it’s 23 years late.”

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