NOVA Literary and Scientific Event on Skloot’s Book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

All students, staff and faculty are cordially invited to a NOVA literary and scientific event presented by the Lyceum, ELI Common Reader Program and MSE Science Seminars.

The event will be held on Friday, October 26 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the CE Theater, Ernst Cultural Center, Annandale Campus. The event will focus on the book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”  Presenters include Biology Professor Karla Henthorn and science journalist Ivan Amato.

The event schedule is:
11:30 a.m. to 11:55 a.m.
Light refreshments and meet and greet the presenters in the Lower Gallery.
12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Presentation by Henthorn and Amato and a dialog based on questions from the audience.

A brief synopsis from the book jacket: “Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor African American tobacco farmer whose cells — taken from her without her knowledge in 1951 — became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually  unknown and her family cannot afford health insurance. This book tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.”

Using the narrative in the book, Skloot addresses and presents many issues. Organizers hope to engage the audience and create interest in the issues with a few thought-provoking questions and issues:

  1. Few modern medical discoveries have made a more valuable contribution to the advancement in medical research than HeLa cells.
  2. How has medical research on human subjects changed since the Henrietta Lacks case?
  3. Why was the development of an “immortal” cell line like HeLa potentially so important to medical research?
  4. HeLa cells have led to advancements in medical research and treatment, yet the Lacks family can’t afford health insurance.  How does one reconcile this dilemma?
  5. Should companies that make money from individuals’ cells or tissue be legally obligated to compensate those individuals?
  6. What role did race, gender, socio-economic status and education play in the taking of and continued use of Henrietta’s cells?  Could the same situation arise today?
  7. What are the differences between ethical/moral rights and legal rights?
  8. How do you think this story represents the relationship between science and religion?

These questions touch on the biological bases underlying the research and medical importance of HeLa cells; the ethical and moral conundrums surrounding the initial collection of Henrietta Lacks’s cells and their subsequent use in basic, applied and money-making research and development; the lessons that society has or has not learned from this experience; and even the science/religion interface of this case. The questions show how rich the story is.

In addition, Amato plans to bring into the discussion the storytelling component of Skloot’s book. Among the topics he will touch upon, based on his own observations and analysis, are the origin of Skloot’s own interest and knowledge of the story, the holes in earlier attempts to get at it, Skloot’s braiding of narratives into an engaging tale, and the transformative power of the book-writing project itself for Skloot, the Lacks family and, possibly, the biomedical research community.

Amato is currently working on a book on the U.S. Navy’s role in the U.S. space program, including its formative role in the creation of NASA and its pioneering achievements in the arena of spy satellites. He has written for Time, Fortune, Science News, Science magazine and Technology Review,  and has done broadcast pieces for National Public Radio and the Science Channel. His previous three books are “Stuff: The Materials the World is Made of,” which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, “Pushing the Horizon,” an historical narrative of the Naval Research Laboratory, and “Super Vision: A New View of Nature,” a celebration of science imagery.

Henthorn has been teaching at the Annandale Campus of NOVA since 1996. She teaches a variety of courses including general biology, cell biology, and genetics and has also taught chemistry courses. She earned a doctorate in human genetics from the University of Michigan, where she worked with HeLa cells, followed by postdoctoral research in human genetics at The National Institutes of Health.

For additional Information you may contact Reva A. Savkar, chair of Science Seminars, at

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