Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rebecca Skloot's Visit a Success!

After many months of planning and 197 event-related emails (according to a quick search of my inbox this morning), Emory welcomed Rebecca Skloot to our campus yesterday. Our plans for her visit came together almost perfectly. There were about 50 people at our student seminar on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and about 200 in the audience at Rebecca's talk in Cannon Chapel. Many participants took the time to tell me how much they enjoyed reading the book, discussing the story, and listening to Rebecca speak. I'm glad to know that others found the events to be as rewarding as I did.

When I originally invited Rebecca to come to Emory, I imagined a reading and book signing similar to the ones I've attended in the past (at lovely shops like Brookline Booksmith and Back Pages Books). This event surpassed my expectations. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks connects with people on an intimate, emotional level, and inspires readers to ask themselves hard questions about life and death, love and loss, right and wrong. Rebecca presents years of meticulous research with an engaging writing style to educate her audience without patronizing or preaching. She describes the members of the Lacks family, their history, and her own relationships with them in a way that reminds us that these characters are not just characters, but real people with complex personalities and tragically human problems. After a reflective introduction by Emory's Senior Vice Provost, Ozzie Harris, Rebecca's straightforward narrative left the large crowd completely rapt at her reading.

We were also incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Roland Pattillo (if you've read the book, you may recognize the name) in attendance last night, as well as two relatives of the Lacks family: Jessica Holmes, a doctoral candidate at Emory's Woodruff School of Nursing, and her mother, Imogene. Several other members of the audience had roots in Clover, VA (the home town of the Lacks family) or at Johns Hopkins University (where Henrietta Lacks was treated for her cancer, and where the HeLa cell line originated). For me, meeting all of these wonderful people in person brought the story of HeLa and the Lacks family home for me in a powerful way that is hard to describe. After Rebecca's talk, some of the event organizers chatted with these special guests next to the bookseller's table until the long line of autograph-seekers had gone by. Hugs were exchanged.

As a scientist, I've known about HeLa for a long time, and I was even told a brief version of the Henrietta Lacks story in my college biology lab, but I'd never felt personally connected to this chapter of scientific history. Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me imagine how I'd feel if I learned that part of my father, who died of cancer when I was 17, was alive in a lab somewhere. It made me look up the origins of other immortalized cell lines that I have used, like SH-SY5Y cells. (Those cells were derived from a bone marrow sample from an anonymous four-year-old girl with metastatic neuroblastoma -- "After progressive debilitation and continued growth of tumor, the patient died in January 1971.") It made me re-evaluate every sarcastic conversation I've had with my fellow grad students about our required ethics training seminars. (Suggestion to ethics seminar organizers: Put this book on the syllabus.)

But, all that is just my opinion. What made yesterday so rewarding was hearing that others have responded to Rebecca's book in similar ways, and in different, equally important ways. Our "book club" seminar yesterday afternoon included faculty from four disciplines (Dr. Michelle Lampl from Anthropology, Dr. Ora Strickland from the School of Nursing, Dr. Paula Vertino from the Winship Cancer Institute, and Dr. Dorothy Roberts, visiting Emory from Northwestern University's School of Law) sharing their expert knowledge and helping us examine the story of Henrietta Lacks from multiple perspectives. We also invited undergraduates, medical students, nursing students, law students, business students, theology students, and graduate students from Anthropology, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Comparative Literature, Educational Studies, the Institute of Liberal Arts, Sociology, and Women's Studies to join the conversation, each with their own unique point of view and response to the story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a truly interdisciplinary work that inspired us to reach out to our colleagues in different corners of the academy, to learn from each other. Several people said that this seminar was the most truly interdisciplinary event they'd attended since coming to Emory, and that they would love more opportunities to have these kinds of discussions. (In response to these comments, we informed people about other interdisciplinary activities on campus -- though most of them don't give away free books.)

In summation, I'm very proud to say that I was a part of the events that took place here yesterday. With the support of dozens of Emory faculty, administrators, staff, and students, my colleagues and I were able to do something that I feel is supremely important: We opened minds. We brought people together. We affirmed essential human principles. Based on the emails I've gotten today, we changed at least a few lives.

Thanks for reading, for listening, and for helping.

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