'Immortal Life' topic of Ubben lecture on Sept. 9

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

GREENCASTLE -- Rebecca Skloot's powerful book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," is a national best-seller that sits at the intersection of multiple disciplines and interests -- including science, ethics, research, race, class and history.


On Thursday, Sept. 9, Skloot will visit DePauw University as a guest of the Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture Series. The speech will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Moore Theater, Green Center for the Performing Arts. Like all Ubben Lectures, the program is presented free of admission charge and is open to the public.

Skloot will be available to sign books following her speech.

Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review and many other publications. She is also a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, and has worked as a correspondent for NPR's "RadioLab" and PBS' "NOVA ScienceNOW."

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," her debut book, took more than a decade to research and write and instantly became a New York Times best-seller (it has remained on the list since its release earlier this year and is currently No. 7) and was recently named one of the best books of the first half of 2010 by Amazon.com. Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball (creator and executive producer of TV's "True Blood") will produce an upcoming movie version for HBO.

Skloot's book tells the story of a poor Southern tobacco farmer who suffered from cervical cancer. Samples of Henrietta Lacks' tissue -- taken without her knowledge -- "turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: Human cells that could survive -- even thrive -- in the lab," writes Skloot.

Named "HeLa" (short for Henrietta Lacks), the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture are still alive today, nearly 60 years after Lacks died and was buried in an unmarked grave. An estimated 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been grown.

HeLa cells were vital in developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping; were sent into space and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Though the cells taken from Lacks launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profit, and to this day can't afford health insurance.

In her Ubben Lecture at DePauw, Skloot will demonstrate that the story of the Lacks family -- past and present -- is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of and the current debates over access to healthcare.

Skloot also explores a wide spectrum of issues related to communication, research, legislation and policy in today's modern scientific community. She urges audiences to recognize the importance of adopting best practices in research and medicine and discusses the ways in which effective communications can be used to bridge the gap between science and the general public, and across cultures of all kinds.

Skloot is the founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which is, among other things, dedicated to providing the Lacks family aid in covering the cost of health insurance, giving those who have benefited from HeLa cells a way to show thanks to Lacks and her family. The foundation also hopes to offer assistance to other African Americans in need who are pursuing education in science and medicine.

Skloot served for eight years on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been featured on numerous television shows, including CBS Sunday Morning, the Colbert Report, FOX Business News and others. Her book was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick for Spring 2010, and received widespread critical acclaim.

Rebecca Skloot holds a B.S. in biological sciences and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction, with graduate training in bioethics. She financed her degrees by working in emergency rooms, neurology labs, veterinary morgues and martini bars. She has taught in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh; she's also taught science journalism at New York University.

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