Every year the incoming freshman class takes part in the Life of the Mind program, which was designed to get students involved and have a common experience with one another upon entering college. During Welcome Week, students meet with assigned groups to discuss the chosen book. The 2011 book selection was the New York Times bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.
On Aug. 15, Skloot visited the UT campus to talk about her book with the Class of 2015. During the lecture, she explored the different themes within the book, her experiences involving the research and the events in her life that brought her to where she is today.
One of the main themes Skloot focused on during her presentation was passion. Skloot expressed how passion and interest for Henrietta Lacks’ story captivated her and sent her on a path she never thought she would be on.
Skloot briefly spoke about how she first learned of Henrietta Lacks. All it took was a short couple of minutes in a freshman-level college class to spark her interest.
“You never know what moment and what teacher will change your life forever,” Skloot said.
According to Skloot, that moment in her biology class changed her goals from becoming a veterinarian to a nonfiction science journalist.
The book focuses on an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Dr. George Gey took a sample of Lacks’ tumor, which became the first human cells ever to be grown and multiplied outside the body, even decades after her death. Since the 1950s, her cells have been growing and have gone from institution to institution and used for many things in medicine, such as the polio vaccine and tuberculosis.
Skloot researched Lacks and her cells, which are called HeLa cells (taking the first two letters of her first and last name to create the scientific name for the cells). Skloot talked with reporters, doctors and even Lacks’ family members to uncover Henrietta’s story and the struggles of the Lacks family since Dr. Gey decided to take a sample of Lacks’ tumor without consent.
Following the presentation, the students split up into their assigned groups to discuss the book and lecture further. In the groups, the students were asked several questions involving ethics, morality and science.
One question focused on whether or not the students felt like Skloot’s book benefited or exploited the Lacks family.
“I don’t think she exploited them at all,” Juliana Betancourt, freshman in public relations, said. “She raised awareness about Henrietta’s case and got millions of people to know and understand what happened and who she is. She did something great for the family because now more people are aware of the situation than ever before.”
Because of Skloot’s book and the amount of awareness raised for Henrietta and the Lacks family, a foundation and scholarship program were created in their honor. The scholarship was made for Lacks’ future descendants and families with similar stories and backgrounds.
Despite the many struggles and obstacles Skloot ran into, she pushed forward and worked for over a decade to get her book written and published exactly how she and the Lacks family wanted it. She encountered many publishing companies who wanted to expunge the story of Henrietta and the Lacks family, making it strictly a science book. However, Skloot refused to comply with the omission and kept looking for a company that would take her book as is.
Skloot kept her initial plan and has been on the bestsellers list for two years now, still raising awareness for the Lacks family and events surrounding the acquisition of human cells that served as the building block for many breakthrough cures.
Throughout the students’ first year at UT, the Life of the Mind book selection is designed for discussion in several different classes whether it be in lectures, exhibits or movies discussed in class with the same or similar themes found in the selected book.