Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Reading: Henrietta Lacks

Starting this year, BURECS students who have stayed in Boston for summer internships are participating in a semi-formal book club led by grad student Donovan Dennis. Unifying this summer's selections is the theme of how STEM and research interact with social issues.

Students first jumped in with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This well-received book, later adapted as a movie starring Oprah Winfrey, walks the line between memoir and nonfiction narrative as Skloot describes the history of the Lacks family. Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who moved to Baltimore as a young woman, developed an aggressive form of cervical cancer. She passed away in 1951 after several months of treatment at Johns Hopkins. However, before her death, a biopsy of her tumor was taken (with dubious consent) as part of widespread national efforts to culture cells that could live outside the human body. Her cells, dubbed HeLa, were and have continued to be the most successful and hardy strain, and have contributed to enormous medical breakthroughs across a wide range of fields, including the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and even research on the International Space Station.

Skloot follows the path of Henrietta's cells in the scientific community, but she also follows Henrietta's family, who were not aware of their mother's contributions to science for years after her death. To this day they have received no reimbursement, and are too poor to afford adequate healthcare. Skloot developed a close friendship with Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, and much of the book is devoted to their combined efforts at uncovering Henrietta's story.

The book explores the complex issues of race, autonomy and consent, medical ethics, and family which arise from Henrietta's situation. Students have had the chance to discuss their own views, as well as choices made by Skloot in the way she presents the Lacks narrative. After finishing the book, they met up after work to watch the movie and discuss its similarities and differences with the book.

My own reaction to the book was overall very positive; Skloot did an excellent job of weaving together the scientific and "human interest" sides of the story to form a cohesive narrative of Henrietta's enduring significance. My only critique is that Skloot herself plays such a large role in the story, despite the focus ostensibly being the Lacks family, but I think that in this case it would have been incredibly difficult to extract herself from the book without losing some of the memorable interactions that she had with members of the Lacks family.

Next on the reading list is Spare Parts by Joshua Davis, which follows four undocumented immigrant high school students in Arizona as they build a robot for a national competition.

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