Skip to main content Skip to navigation
WSU Undergraduate Education WSU Common Reading

2012-13 Common Reading Program


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


The Book

Published in 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a non-fiction book about a woman of the same name and her immortal cell line known as HeLa, derived from the first letters of her names.  Cervical cancer cells were taken frin her prior to her death at 31 in 1951 without her knowledge for use in scientific research. HeLa cells were used to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s, and since have been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and more.

Skloot’s book covers the lives of Lacks’ five children and raises issues about racism, scientific ethics, poverty, and cancer, among others. It has won numerous award and has been used for common readings at many universities.  In May 2010, it was announced that Home Box Office (HBO) with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and producer Alan Ball plan to create a film version of the story.

The book is one of the best-selling new books of 2010, and appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than two years, reaching the number one position.

The Author

Rebecca Skloot’s first book is our common reading.  A freelance writer specializing in narrative science writing, Skloot studied at college biological sciences for her bachelor’s degree and creative nonfiction for her master of fine arts degree. She has published more than 200 featured stories and essays in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover, and New York magazine.

Common Reading, Rebecca Skloot

Skloot founded the non-profit public charity, The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She is donating a portion of her book’s proceeds to the Foundation. It “strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefitting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent… The Foundation’s goal is to continue to help the Lacks family as well as others with similar needs, such as descendants of research subjects used in the famous Tuskegee Syphilis Studies, people injected with sexually transmitted diseases without their knowledge by the U.S. government, and others… The Foundation gives those who have benefited from those contributions—including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public—a way to show their appreciation to such research subjects and their families. As of July 13, 2012, the board of directors had awarded 33 grants (23 for tuition and books, 8 for medical or dental aid, and two for emergency needs).”

In a new book, Skloot will explore the neurology of human-animal relationships, human nature and responsibility, and the ethics of human-animal bonds. Skloot worked for more than a decade in veterinary medicine, first as a nurse for animals in general practices and emergency rooms and later as a technician in veterinary morgues and neurology labs.

She was born in Springfield, Ill., raised in Portland, Oreg., and now lives in Chicago and likes to write in the hills of West Virginia.  She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University.

Common Reading Tuesdays and Other Events

August 2012

16  (Week of Welcome) Common Reading activity.  CUB Lower Level from 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

21 Common Reading Tuesdays (CRT) Kick-Off: Screening of an episode from the TV show “Law and Order”

28  “Race, Racism, and Science,” presented by Rich King (professor in the Dept. of Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies). 7 p.m., Todd 116

September 2012

18  CRT: Tom Salsbury (Teaching and Learning) on Cross-Cultural Awareness. 7 p.m., Todd 130.

October 2012

CRT: Mike Edwards (English) on “Who Owns Your Information” (Issues of Intellectual Property.  7 p.m., Todd 130.

16  CRT: Panel Presentation led by John Streamas (Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies) on “Who Tells Whose Story, and Who Decides Whether It’s True?”  7 p.m., Todd 130.

29 SPECIAL GUEST: Dr. Stanley Gartler’s discovery of the “HeLa Bomb” (chapter 20) changed the course of research using HeLa cells forever. He is an emeritus professor of medicine and genome studies at the University of Washington. 3 p.m. in CUB Junior Ballroom, light refreshments to follow.

November 2012

SPECIAL GUEST: Patricia Heberer (historian at the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.). visits campus. Co-sponsored by the Dept of History and the Campus Outreach Lecture Program (USHMM). She will be at two events:

  • Noon Brownbag, CUE 518 for faculty, graduate students, and the community, and
  • Lecture at 7 P.M., Todd 116, entitled “Giving a Face to Faceless Victims: Profiles of Disabled Victims of the Nazi ‘Euthanasia’ Program”


13 
CRT: Bill Kabasenche (Philosophy) on “What’s Your Body Worth? The Ethics of Commodifying Human Tissues.”  7 p.m., Todd 130

January 2013

10  Global Campus EVent: Authors Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan on “Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade,” 7 p.m., CUE 203.

15  Common Reading Tuesdays (CRT): Screening of documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. 7 p.m., CUE 203.

17 Foley Institute Event:  Allen Buchanan (Philosophy and Law at Duke University) on “Science, Ethics, and Democracy.” Noon-1:15 p.m., Foley Speaker Room, Bryan Hall 308.

22 (12:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) and 23 (5:00 p.m.)  Tom Salsbury (Education) webinar on “Cross-Cultural Awareness” for students in the Global Campus.

23  Common Reading Invited Lecture for 2012-13: A moderated discussion with the Lacks Family. 7:30 p.m., Beasley Coliseum.

24  WSU Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Celebration. 4-6 p.m., CUB Senior Ballroom.

28-31  “Tunnel of Oppression: Be the Light,” sponsored by the Department of Residence Life, 4-9 p.m. daily, Gannon Goldsworthy Hall.

February 2013

Global Campus Event:  Kevin Bales (Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Hull) on “New Slavery in the Global Economy,” 7:30 p.m., CUB Auditorium.

11 (12:00 p.m), 12 (6:00 p.m.), and 13 (12:00 p.m.) Global Campus Event: Bill Kabasenche (Philosophy) webinar on “Commodifying Human Tissues” for students in the Global Campus (all WSU students welcome).

12  CRT: Mary Sanchez-Lanier (MBioS and PHASE) on “HeLa cells, a Virus, a Sexually Transmitted Disease, and Cancer: The intersection of health care and basic science, of disease and infection, and the cells of Henrietta Lacks.” At 7 p.m., CUE 203.

15  Deadline for submissions to SURCA (Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities), including a special category for first-year student work related to the Common Reading.

25  Alondra Nelson (Columbia University) on “Henrietta Lacks in Context: African American Responses to Medical Discrimination in the 20th Century”. 5:30 p.m., 203.

26  “Singing for Justice: Songs of the American Civil Rights Movement” (WSU School of Music event), , 8 pm, Bryan Hall.

March 2013

Screening of PBS documentary  In Sickness and in Wealth, , 7 p.m., Todd 216.

26  CRT: Marianne Kinkel (Fine Arts) on “Shifting Perceptions: Anti-Prejudice Cartoons and Air Age Cartography”. 7 p.m., CUE 203.

29 
SURCA (Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities). CUB Ballrooms from Noon to 5:15 p.m., CUB Ballrooms.


April 2013

2 CRT: Judy Meuth (Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies) on “Effects of Scientific Constructions of Gender and Race on Reproductive Health,” 7 p.m., CUE 203.

9 CRT: Jeff Peterson (Communication) on “Miscommunication in Healthcare Settings,” 7 p.m., CUE 203.

16 CRT: Marsha Turnbull and Mapuana Antonio (Health and Wellness) on Student Health and STDs. 7 p.m., CUE 203


Suggested Media:

Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? (PBS documentary, 2008, WSU dvd #2540).
This 7-part documentary series explores how income inequality, race, and place all contribute to poor health outcomes in a variety of ways.  An excellent array of resources and discussion questions are included on the series’s website:  http://www.unnaturalcauses.org/episode_descriptions.php

Miss Evers’ Boys (HBO movie 1997, WSU dvd #3908).
This film, starring Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburne, is based on the true story of the decades-long Tuskegee experiment.

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North
(PBS documentary, 2008, owned by WSU Vancouver).
In the feature documentary, filmmaker Katrina Browne discovers that her New England ancestors, the DeWolf family, were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine cousins retrace the Triangle Trade and gain powerful new perspectives on the black/white divide.  One of the DeWolf family descendants, Tom DeWolf, is speaking with Sharon Morgan on January 10.