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College Freshmen Learn From 'Henrietta Lacks'

Many colleges are assigning all incoming freshman a common book to read and discuss in their first week on campus.
Many colleges are assigning all incoming freshman a common book to read and discuss in their first week on campus.

In recent years, a growing number of colleges have begun assigning "common reads," books that all first year students read over the summer, and then discuss during their first week of school.

Author Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is one of the most talked about books of 2010. It has since become a popular 2011 freshman common read.

The book tells the history of the HeLa cell line, which was taken without permission or consent from an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Rebecca Skloot first learned about the HeLa cell line as a college freshman. She spent years unraveling the human story behind the cells.

Skloot tells NPR's Rebecca Roberts that she thinks all young people, regardless of their academic interest, can take something away from the book.

Interview Highlights

On how students relate personally to the book

"There really isn't any department within a university that can't find something specific in the book that relates to it, whether it's law, women's studies — it really does cross all of the different boundaries. And one of the things that I hear over and over from students and from teachers is not that it just touches all the disciplines, but it touches every student personally. Because there isn't a single person out there that hasn't benefitted personally from these cells, whether it's because they got the polio vaccine, or someone that they love survived cancer by being treated with a drug made using HeLa cells, or because they were conceived through [in vitro fertilization], which HeLa cells helped develop in the beginning...

"And there's always a point in reading the book when a student realizes that. They sort of turn a page and go, 'Oh, wait — that's me! My mom took that drug.' And I think that's part of what helps to sort of bring it to life within the classroom."

On how the book was born of her own freshman experience

"This is about a college freshman. I learned about HeLa cells in my first basic biology class, and I just became completely obsessed with them from that point on.

"And I just followed my curiosity, and I asked these questions — 'Who is this woman?' And no one could answer me. And I spent the rest of my life to this point working on trying to find answers to that question and writing the book and facing so many almost absurd hurdles along the way ...

"The thing I hear over and over again is, 'You know, we'd really like her to come and talk about the determination. Where did that come from, and how do you foster that in students?'

"So I hear from students and teachers all the time that for them it's really a book ... about following their passion ... I thought I was going to be a veterinarian, and I failed freshman biology, which I mention in the book. And then I went from that to where I am now. And so that journey ends up being a lot of what I talk about."

On how she hopes students will be inspired to make a difference in the world.

"I don't give a specific call to action ... The laws are still very unclear. Cells are still taken from people without consent — a lot of people don't realize it. It's happening ... This needs to be part of a public discussion ...

"Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that there are new federal regulations being written that will potentially require consent for cells. And I've been mentioning that at a lot of schools lately. Because it's in this point where it's open for public discussion ... So I've been saying to students, 'This is part of the power of writing. For me, it's writing a book and telling people about this story. For you, you can write a letter and you can say, "I think this about the new law, or I think that about it, and you should change it in this way."'

"And so in a lot of ways, it does become a conversation about action, and that your voice can actually do something in the world."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.