'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' unites new students, Rowan community

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' unites new students, Rowan community

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the first book in the RU Reading Together Common Reading Program.

Book kicks off RU Reading Together Common Reading Program

It is a sad, disturbing, remarkable story.

In 1951, as 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks lay dying of cancer, cells were taken from her body without her consent for use in medical research. Those cells, which remain alive today, have been used to make breathtaking scientific advances—and huge profits—for more than six decades. Research on the cells has led to the development of the polio vaccine and advances in in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.

Yet, the family of Lacks, who was a poor African-American tobacco farmer, had no knowledge that her cells had been used in such a way. Journalist Rebecca Skloot changed that. Her 2010 New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, uses a compelling narrative as she tells Lacks’ story—and explores the many moral and ethical issues surrounding it.

The book is the perfect choice to kick off Rowan University’s first-ever RU Reading Together Common Reading Program, says Rory McElwee, assistant vice president for student retention and director of the Office of Academic Transition Programs.

“It’s a true story that has broad appeal and covers issues ranging from medical research ethics to social justice to racial inequality,” says McElwee. “Students, faculty and staff members from throughout the University will take away valuable lessons from the book. It’s an ideal choice—a complete home run.”

Through the RU Reading Together Program, every new Rowan student—from first-year medical school student to incoming freshman—is reading Skloot’s book. This fall, all students will participate in book discussions and lectures that focus on the issues of medical ethics, racism, sexism, and social justice highlighted in the book.

On Nov. 14, the University community will welcome Skloot to campus. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has spent two years on the Times’ best-seller list, was Skloot’s debut book and took more than a decade to research and write.

A 'community of scholars'

Henrietta Lacks will unite Rowan’s community of scholars, McElwee says. It’s no coincidence that the book is the inaugural book in the RU Reading Together Program this fall as the charter class of 50 students at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) begins its studies, Rowan President Ali Houshmand said in a letter to the University community.

“The choice of this book to kick off our RU Reading Together Common Reading Program, and also to celebrate the opening of Cooper Medical School, signifies the commonalities among our various disciplines,” Houshmand said.

The RU Reading Together Program, the president added, “affirms the excitement of the intellectual life and the joy of sharing that excitement within the community in which we all—students, faculty, staff and administrators—share membership.”

Excitement for the RU Reading Together Program—and Skloot’s book in particular—abounds on Rowan’s campus, said McElwee and Drew Tinnin, director of Orientation & Student Leadership Programs. McElwee and Tinnin are co-coordinators of the program, along with Richard Jones, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students.

A casual conversation between Jones and CMSRU Founding Dean Paul Katz, M.D. led to the establishment of the University-wide program this fall, Jones said. Katz already had planned to require CMSRU students to read Skloot’s book and to host her appearance on campus. That provided the perfect opportunity to expand the program to all incoming students, Jones said.

New students—and even their parents—have expressed enthusiasm about Henrietta Lacks, according to Tinnin.

“Many of our first-year students were expecting to read a common book from their experiences with high school and community reading programs,” says Tinnin. “And we’re getting a lot of phone calls from parents, who are really excited as well.

“There are compelling personal stories that run through the book. You just can’t put it down.”

Campus-wide discussions

Discussions focusing on the issues raised in the book will be held on Rowan’s campus throughout the academic year.  During the University’s Welcome Weekend, new students will meet in small groups on Sunday, Sept. 2, to discuss the book.

Additionally, campus-wide discussion groups are in the works. On Tuesday, Sept. 18, from 9-10 p.m., Jones and David Rubenstein, director of Rowan’s Counseling & Psychological Services Center, will lead, “The Undiagnosed Impact of Masculine Pathology in Henrietta Lacks,” a discussion focusing on the male characters in Skloot’s book, in Room 221 of the Chamberlain Student Center.

“Lessons Learned from Henrietta Lacks: Rowan’s Policies on Protecting Human Subjects,” a workshop focusing on research involving human subjects, will be presented by the Office of Sponsored Programs and University Advancement on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 1-3 p.m. in the Betty Long Rowan Auditorium in Rowan Hall.

The sponsors of the RU Reading Together Program and Skloot’s appearance at Rowan include the President’s Office, CMSRU, Academic Transition Programs, Biological Science, Student Life, University Events and the Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

For information about the program and upcoming book discussions, visit www.rowan.edu/commonreading.

For information about Henrietta Lacks and Rebecca Skloot, visit www.rebeccaskloot.com.