College Freshmen Learn From 'Henrietta Lacks'
In recent years, a growing number of colleges have begun assigning "common reads," books that all first year students read over the summer, and then discuss during their first week of school.
Author Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is one of the most talked about books of 2010. It has since become a popular 2011 freshman common read.
The book tells the history of the HeLa cell line, which was taken without permission or consent from an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Rebecca Skloot first learned about the HeLa cell line as a college freshman. She spent years unraveling the human story behind the cells.
Skloot tells NPR's Rebecca Roberts that she thinks all young people, regardless of their academic interest, can take something away from the book.
On how students relate personally to the book
"There really isn't any department within a university that can't find something specific in the book that relates to it, whether it's law, women's studies — it really does cross all of the different boundaries. And one of the things that I hear over and over from students and from teachers is not that it just touches all the disciplines, but it touches every student personally. Because there isn't a single person out there that hasn't benefitted personally from these cells, whether it's because they got the polio vaccine, or someone that they love survived cancer by being treated with a drug made using HeLa cells, or because they were conceived through [in vitro fertilization], which HeLa cells helped develop in the beginning...
"And there's always a point in reading the book when a student realizes that. They sort of turn a page and go, 'Oh, wait — that's me! My mom took that drug.' And I think that's part of what helps to sort of bring it to life within the classroom."
On how the book was born of her own freshman experience
"This is about a college freshman. I learned about HeLa cells in my first basic biology class, and I just became completely obsessed with them from that point on.
"And I just followed my curiosity, and I asked these questions — 'Who is this woman?' And no one could answer me. And I spent the rest of my life to this point working on trying to find answers to that question and writing the book and facing so many almost absurd hurdles along the way ...
"The thing I hear over and over again is, 'You know, we'd really like her to come and talk about the determination. Where did that come from, and how do you foster that in students?'
"So I hear from students and teachers all the time that for them it's really a book ... about following their passion ... I thought I was going to be a veterinarian, and I failed freshman biology, which I mention in the book. And then I went from that to where I am now. And so that journey ends up being a lot of what I talk about."
On how she hopes students will be inspired to make a difference in the world.
"I don't give a specific call to action ... The laws are still very unclear. Cells are still taken from people without consent — a lot of people don't realize it. It's happening ... This needs to be part of a public discussion ...
"Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that there are new federal regulations being written that will potentially require consent for cells. And I've been mentioning that at a lot of schools lately. Because it's in this point where it's open for public discussion ... So I've been saying to students, 'This is part of the power of writing. For me, it's writing a book and telling people about this story. For you, you can write a letter and you can say, "I think this about the new law, or I think that about it, and you should change it in this way."'
"And so in a lot of ways, it does become a conversation about action, and that your voice can actually do something in the world."
REBECCA ROBERTS, host: And now, the next in our Freshman Read series. In recent years, a growing number of colleges have begun assigning common reads - books that all first year students read over the summer and then discuss their first week of school. Last week, we talked with author Wes Moore about his book "The Other Wes Moore," featured on several freshman reading lists.
Today, we'll be talking about another common freshman read: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Author Rebecca Skloot's book about the HeLa cell line, taken without permission or consent from an African-American woman suffering from cervical cancer, became one of the most talked-about books of 2010, and it's now on reading lists at many colleges and universities.
Rebecca Skloot joins us in a moment, but, first, we want to hear from you. Have you read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"? What do you think this book has to offer for freshman students? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'd also like to know which book you think belongs on a freshman common read list. You can do that via email. Send it to email@example.com, and please put freshman in the subject line. After we wrap up the series, we will tell you the top choices.
Rebecca Skloot joins us now from member station WTNM in Oxford, Mississippi. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
REBECCA SKLOOT: Thanks for having me.
ROBERTS: Your book actually crosses a lot of academic lines. It's about science and race and history. Where would you put it in a curriculum?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKLOOT: That's a good question. Sort of everywhere, which I think is why it's really being adopted by a lot of schools for their common reads, because there really isn't any department within a university that can't find something specific in the book that relates to it, whether it's, you know, law, women's studies. I mean, it really does cross all of the different boundaries.
And one of the things that I think is - I hear over and over from students is - and from teachers is that it's not just that it touches all the different disciplines, but it touches every single student personally, because, you know, there isn't a single person out there who hasn't benefitted personally from these cells, whether it's because they got the polio vaccine or someone that they love survived cancer by being treated with a drug made using HeLa cells or, you know, they were conceived through IVF, which, you know, HeLa cells helped to develop in the beginning. I mean, the number of ways that their personal connections to the book just kind of go on and on.
And there's only the point, in reading the book, when a student realizes that. They sort of turn the page and go, oh, wait, that's me, like, my mom took that drug. And I think that's part of what helps to bring it - sort of bring it to life within a classroom.
ROBERTS: You know, the book is not just Henrietta Lacks' story. It's also, in part, your story of finding this all out, trying to find some sort of justice for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. You know, in the context of freshman reading, as opposed to some other kind of book group, is these are people who are embarking on a new journey themselves. Do you think there's something about your narrative that also might resonate with them?
SKLOOT: Yeah, without a doubt. And it's very funny, because, you know, you asked me, what are the messages I think that the student should take from the book? I have a long list of things that I think are important. You know, the truth is, you know, when you write a book, it goes out in the world and you don't have any control over who's going to take what message. And in the end, overwhelmingly, what I hear from all schools, all students, is that, for a lot of them, this is a book about, you know, a college freshman.
I learned about HeLa cells in my first basic biology class, and I just became completely obsessed with them from that point on, and I just followed my curiosity and I asked these questions. You know, who was this woman? No one could answer me. And I spent the rest of my life, to this point, working on trying to find the answers to that question and writing the book, and faced so many almost absurd hurdles along the way.
And the thing I hear over and over again is, you know, we'd really like her to come and talk about the determination, like where did that come from? How do you kind of foster that in students? And, you know - so I hear from students and teachers all the time that, for them, it's really a book about that, about following your passion and how do you go from - I mean, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian, and I failed freshman biology, which I mention in the book. And then I went from that to sort of where I am now. And so that journey ends up being a lot of what I talk about.
ROBERTS: So it's sort of your journey and your tenacity in keeping the story going. It's also a story of Henrietta Lacks' children and their discovery of the role their mother played, which is - it's very moving. And as I understand it, you continue to be involved with it.
SKLOOT: Yes, they're still very much part of my life. I - before the book came out, I started this Henrietta Lacks Foundation that gives grants for education and health care and various things to members of the Lacks family and other people who have been used in research without consent. But so far it's mainly been the Lacks family. So we've been able to help - I think there are about 20 grants at this point for tuition and books and then a lot of other things. And they've also gotten very active in talking about the book. They actually visit schools now and give talks. And so they're very much involved in the whole process.
ROBERTS: You know, last week I spoke to Wes Moore about his book "The Other Wes Moore," which is also on a lot of freshmen common reads lists. And he said that one of the things he hopes that freshmen get out of it is actually a call to action, that it's beyond just the awareness of somebody else's story, that there - that it's then followed up by actually doing something. Do you share that?
SKLOOT: I think I do. And it's funny, my - I think one of the things I end up talking about a lot is that I - this is an - I don't give a specific call to action. I don't - I didn't write the book and say, like, this is an argument for doing X. It's more that it's an argument, you know, it's like putting the story out there and saying something needs to change. We still - the laws are still very unclear. Cells are still taken from people without consent a lot. People don't realize it's happening. This needs to be part of a public discussion.
So I definitely was writing it with this idea that I wanted there to be discussion about this and that, you know, when you write something, that you can actually instigate change if you really care about something. And it's been pretty incredible to watch that. And actually, just a few weeks ago, it was announced that there are new federal regulations being written that will potentially require a consent for cells - and I've been mentioning that in a lot of schools lately because it's in this - at this point where it's open for public discussion. So the government has said we would like you to read these potential changes and tell us what you think.
So I've been saying to students, you know, this is part of the power of writing. You know, for me it's writing a book and telling people what, you know, about this story; for you, you can write a letter and you can say, you know, I think this about the new law or I think that about it and you should change it in this way. And so in a lot of ways it does become a conversation about action and that your voice can actually do something in the world.
ROBERTS: Do you - what do you make of the format of a freshman come and read as a forum for public discussion?
SKLOOT: I think it's great. I think it has a lot of potential. And I - it's been really interesting to me to see how the different schools run with it. And, you know, I think now it's just starting out at a lot of schools. Some of them have been doing it for a long time. Some of them have not. And I've seen some schools in some ways struggling a little bit with it and saying, OK, so what do we do? We have the author come in and give a talk.
And then how do we have them interact with the students and how do we do it in a way that they're not just repeating the same thing over and over again to a bunch of different groups of students and how do we engage the students? And I think the most successful of the programs that I've seen are the ones that really get the students involved and they do interactive projects. You know, there was one school they've got, you know, an essay contest and the top 12 essays get published in a book that they actually produce on campus. And they all got to have dinner with me. You know, and they have - like one of them did a stump Rebecca Skloot contest.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKLOOT: See if you can come up with a question she hasn't heard, which at this point, two years of non-stop talking with the book, is pretty challenging, but they do it. So I think, you know...
ROBERTS: You realize that's waving a red flag in front of an interviewer, by the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKLOOT: Yes. But what's great is to see them then really step up to me. Students love that kind of challenge, and they do it. And part of it is just, you know, then that gets them to go online and do a little research and listen to some of the interviews out there so that they then come up with some original stuff. And so I think doing that, it's great to watch because then students are learning research techniques, you know, they're learning how to really engage with the text and go beyond the obvious questions and - so I think when done right, it's a great and amazing program that can teach them so much.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Melissa in Tucson. Melissa, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
MELISSA: Hi. I loved the book. I was not assigned it as part of my program. I'm a social work graduate student at Arizona State University. And I thought it was a fabulous book. I actually told my research professor about it. She had not heard about it yet. Hopefully she's read it. At this point I'm about to go actually and see that same professor in about five minutes. I know the book was great for social work students because we need to understand the implications of the research that we do and the people behind the research that we do. In fact, my school, Arizona State University, has a very famous case of doing research improperly. In fact, I think you mentioned it in the book...
ROBERTS: Yeah. The Havasupai tribe.
MELISSA: It's a huge case. It's a huge case that set a lot of precedent on an Indian reservation up in Northern Arizona and at the Grand Canyon. And it's a fabulous book. And I'm thrilled to have a chance to tell you how much I loved it.
SKLOOT: Thank you.
ROBERTS: Melissa, thank you so much for your call. Let's hear from Rex in Houston. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
REX: Oh, yes. I just wanted to commend Ms. Skloot for her novel. I'm a first generation African-American college student at the University of Houston downtown. And we were made to read the book this year, my freshman year. And it just had an amazing tidal wave effect over the whole freshman class as far as, you know, from a cultural aspect, from a determination aspect and from a scientific discovery aspect. And it had a really deep impact on this year's freshman class. I just wanted to let her know that.
SKLOOT: Thank you very much.
ROBERTS: That's really great to hear. Well, and he brought up this sort of cross-curricular impact that it's about, you know, your determination, it's about the science behind it, it's about the race and justice issues behind it. Do you find that different campuses respond to slightly different things?
SKLOOT: Sometimes, yeah. There's certainly, you know, you can see one theme sort of rising up a bit more at one campus over the other. But for the most part, it's pretty - it's - there is this - a broad response. Obviously at, you know, inner city, particular inner city or, you know, historically black colleges and universities where, you know, any school where there's a large African-American population, there, you know, it's such a powerful story for so many reasons. You know, the history of research on black people without consent and - but for students, I think there's often this feeling that, like, this is very recent history. So regardless of where you're coming from, and you don't often hear about history that happens like, you know, the family is still around, and they're actually going on and talking to schools. And a lot of this stuff happened, you know, when I was alive and, you know, the students' parents were around.
And I think there is this - there's a sense of ownership when I was talking about the African-American students. There's this real sense of, like, this is an important part of our history, and it relates to everyone's story. And then I think just across the board students really have this reaction of thinking like, I thought this stuff didn't happen so recently, you know, when they think about race relations and tensions that come up in the book, that they a lot of times just don't realize how recent this stuff was.
ROBERTS: My guest is Rebecca Skloot. She is the author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," which is a freshman reads choice at several colleges around town, around the country. The idea of freshman reads is that the entire incoming first year class reads a book over the summer and then discusses it when they get to campus.
If you have read Rebecca Skloot's book and have some insight about what it could mean to an incoming freshman class, give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also email us with suggestions of what you would think would make a good freshman read. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put freshman in the subject line.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's take a call from Devon in Ann Arbor. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Devon.
DEVON: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. I just want to thank Ms. Skloot so much for writing this book. It was just phenomenal and really made me think. I think this book is really good for freshman (unintelligible) in general because it makes the issue very complex. It doesn't have any simple answers. It lays out the facts, but also shows the context with which the decisions were made and what was going on at that particular point in time. And I think - and shows how that evolved over time and how - when it talks about at the end of the book the implications for policy and the questions that remain based on what happened to Ms. Lacks.
I think that's great for freshmen because I know when I was a freshman I saw things in very much black and white, you know, so very passionate about issues of racism and justice and women's issues. And sometimes I know I tended to look at things in more simplistic terms, and the book, really it brings up a lot of emotion. Actually, I couldn't get past the first chapter for a little bit because it upset me so much. But as you go on, you really have to stop and reflect and think about all the complications and the choices that real people made in different moments that sort of gathered up to make the story as a whole.
SKLOOT: That's great to hear. Thank you. And that's one of the things that I hear from teachers a lot and also when I go to schools, is that the initial response to the story is, like, well, someone has to give them money. Or the other side of it - you know, they don't deserve any money, you know. And that students often initially try to take - this side or that side? And then the more you read, you realize there's this side, they're so blurry.
And in a way, that's why I structured it the way I did, so it jumps back and forth between a story of the cells and the family and the scientists. So you - it puts you in these different worlds and shows you that, yeah, it's just not - not as simple as sort of this one side or the other.
ROBERTS: Did you have a freshman read?
SKLOOT: No, I didn't. And I - my educational path was pretty untraditional. I did - took a bunch of years off between high school and college, and then I did a couple of years at a community college and then transferred to another school. But they - I don't even think they were doing college reads at that point.
ROBERTS: Do you have a recommendation for one you think would make a good one?
SKLOOT: That's a good question.
ROBERTS: See, I did stump you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKLOOT: (Unintelligible) congratulations. Let me think about that, and I'll get back to you. It's funny. One of the things, actually, one of the last callers mentioned, you know, we had to read this. They made us read this. And I hear that a lot. We were forced to read it. And you'll see on Twitter and things, people, you know, send things to me - it's like I have to read your book, and it's about cells and blah, that sounds really boring.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKLOOT: But then I hear over and over again. It's like, you know, but I'm really glad because then eventually I got into it and I actually learned about science and various things. But it's really interesting to watch the transition from - oh my God, I'm being forced to read this book to having a relationship with the book. I had one student at Virginia Commonwealth come up to me and say that this was the first book he had ever read in his life. He was this college freshman. And...
SKLOOT: ...that was one of the greatest - and I was just terrified...
ROBERTS: How did he get through 18 years?
SKLOOT: I know. That's what I asked. That was my first - my first question was that, and my second question was: Can I give you a reading list...
ROBERTS: Right. Right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SKLOOT: ..of other books that you will like? And - but, you know, and his - he just said, you know, he just never had to finish one. And so I think that there really is something to that, and I hear a lot from students, that they are finishing they finished the books because they have to, you know, they have to do it for school, and they're happy that they did in the end.
ROBERTS: Well, while I give you a chance to think about one you might recommend for a freshman read, I'll read some other recommendations. Glenn says "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. Logan in Greenville, North Carolina says Tom Wolfe's novel "I am Charlotte Simmons." M. Jones says "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. And Shawn says Octavia Butler's "Kindred." We are collecting those recommendations. We will have the most popular choices after we finish talking about this series.
So Rebecca Skloot, last chance. A recommendation for a freshman read?
SKLOOT: Um, um...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROBERTS: I feel like I need to play the "Jeopardy" music for you or something.
SKLOOT: Yeah, I know. Absolutely. You know, and one of the things that - it is really hard to find something that - having been a teacher - that crosses so many different disciplines. And I mean, one of the first things that, sort of in conjunction with my book, that I think is really good to read is, you know, "Medical Apartheid" is one. That gives a history of research on African-Americans. And also "The Warmth of Other Suns," which is this sort of evolution of African-Americans and the Great Migration.
ROBERTS: Rebecca Skloot is the author of "The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks." If you haven't read it yet, you can get a sneak peek at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks so much for joining us.
SKLOOT: Thanks for having me.
ROBERTS: Tomorrow, it is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with Ira Flatow.
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.