On reading, writing...and curiosity

On reading, writing...and curiosity

“Find—and follow—your curiosity,” author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" tells rapt Rowan audience.

 Rebecca Skloot’s view of her work really is pretty simple.

 “My job,” Skloot said, “is to lay out all the sides of an issue and say, ‘Discuss.’”

That’s an understatement. Skloot’s New York Times best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has been the talk of Rowan’s campus since summer, when it was introduced as the inaugural book in the RU Reading Together Common Reading Program.

All new students—from freshmen to transfers to first-year students at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU)—were encouraged to read the book, as were upperclassmen, faculty members, administrators and staff. Discussion groups focusing on issues raised in the book are being held through the academic year.

On Nov. 14, 500 members of the University community—plus the general public—jammed into the Eynon Ballroom of the Chamberlain Student Center to hear Skloot address the scientific, economic, racial, ethical and moral concerns in health care and research raised in Henrietta Lacks. Her appearance was part of the President’s Lecture Series, which brings prominent speakers to campus for talks on topics ranging from education and science to history and politics.

Skloot’s book, which is being turned into an HBO movie co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, tells the story of Lacks, whose cancerous cells were removed from her body—without her consent—in 1951.

HeLa cells

The cells (known as HeLa), which are still growing, have led to breathtaking scientific breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine and advances in in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.

Lacks died of cervical cancer at age 31, leaving behind five children. Her Baltimore-area family members were unaware her cells had been used until the 1970s.

Quietly, before a rapt Rowan audience, Skloot told the story of the Lacks family—and her personal, 11-year journey to tell Henrietta’s story. Audience questions focused on issues ranging from whether Lacks’ family’s unwitting contribution to science made the family more deserving of health care…to the similarities between journalism and science…to whether Lacks would have been treated differently if she had been white.

Becoming a science writer

As she outlined her transitions from a disconnected high school student to a veterinary student to, ultimately, a professional science writer and author, Skloot encouraged Rowan students in the capacity crowd to enrich their education by following their own curiosity. Her fascination with learning about Lacks and her family—and another unrelated curiosity about goldfish surgery—both led her to become a science writer, she said.

“Find—and follow—your curiosity,” Skloot said. “It could lead you in a direction you couldn’t possibly have imagined. It’s easy to not stop and say, ‘Wait. What?’

“I encourage you to look for the ‘what?’ moments.”

In introducing Skloot, Cindy Vitto, dean of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences, noted that the buzz surrounding Skloot’s book, as part of the RU Reading Together program, became “a real campus wide effort," reaching across many, many academic disciplines.

“It takes an extraordinary book to do that,” said Vitto, an English professor.

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

For information on the RU Reading Together Program, visit www.rowan.edu/commonreading.

For information about Skloot, visit www.rebeccaskloot.com.