Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rebecca Skloot on Rutgers Campus

Today I put in a normal work day and a three-hour volunteer shift at the food co-op, and afterwards I walked to the College Ave. Gym on the Rutgers campus to see author Rebecca Skloot give a lecture on her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (I love college towns!)

Fiction is my #1 passion, and while I enjoy creative nonfiction, it usually takes me longer to read. But not this book--when I read it in 2010, it kept me awake for days; I had to keep reading. And the story has haunted me ever since:

In 1950, Henrietta Lacks received medical care from Johns Hopkins university for advanced stage cervical cancer. Without being informed first, doctors took a culture from her tumor. To everyone's surprise, the cells grew, rapidly, in culture. This was the first time cells were sustained in culture (and these cells are still grown and used in research today!).

The narrative weaves in the story of the end of Henrietta's brief life and her reality as a woman of color in the 1950s American South, and how race, class, gender and the facts of the medical world in her time (read: patient consent forms did not exist yet) with the modern day stories of the children and family Henrietta left behind.

It was chilling to read about the scientific advances the cultured "He-La" cells led to (which ultimately made them highly profitable), while her family grew up missing their matriarch, and in a society that kept them from science education and access to healthcare.

Skloot talked about the 10-year process of writing and researching the book (understandably, the family was reluctant to talk to researchers or journalists), and what kept her going on this project. She gave the following advice to writers, students and educators:

1. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions, and don't give up until you've investigated fully. She called these "What? Moments," or the things that make you stop in your tracks and want to know more. The first scene of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks begins with Skloot's memory of being in a high school biology class and learning that He-La cells were taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks--but that almost nothing else was known about this woman. Skloot wanted to know more, and that curiosity, she said, drove her through the tougher moments of writing this book.

2. Know your passion. Skloot said that the things she's most passionate about now were the things she cared about in childhood--that her strongest passions were formed by the time she was 18 years old. This passion, too, kept Skloot motivated throughout a decades-long project.

I also enjoyed hearing Skloot talk about discovering her joint passions--for science and the research process, as well as for writing. (At the end of her undergrad career she decided to go on to study science journalism, instead of fulfilling her lifelong dream of going to veterinary school.)

My mom met up with me after work, and it was great to see the talk with her--we read the book around the same time, while I was living in Madison, WI and she was here in New Jersey. Ended the night with hummus at Evelyn's, one of my favorite spots in New Brunswick. I should be exhausted, but that Lebanese coffee (best served with baklava) will keep me up a while longer...

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