Much can happen in a decade. Over the past ten years, the United States has had two presidents, the last three Harry Potter books were released to the world, the hit television show “Lost” began and ended, and Facebook surpassed MySpace as the number one social networking site in the world. Ten years is a long time. Can you imagine spending that whole time working on one single project?
That is what Rebecca Skloot did. She devoted ten years of her life to researching and writing her book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book was released on Feb. 2, 2010, and soon became a New York Times bestseller. It has won several awards, such as the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction and the Welcome Trust Book Prize, and is currently being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, proving that Skloot’s hard work paid off.
Now, two years after the book’s release, Elizabethtown College is welcoming Skloot to its campus to serve as the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Scholarship and Creative Arts Day (SCAD).
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is the story of the woman who will forever be known as HeLa, as her cells were taken without her permission in the 1950s, and have been used for medical research ever since. The cells were “immortalized” and have been used for the treatment of diseases such as polio and cancer, as well as for research of in-vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping and several other medical advancements. Despite the cells’ success in treatment and research, the Lacks family continues to live in poverty, something that Skloot has researched extensively, making this biography a human-interest story as well as a scientific work.
Etown first got involved with “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” when administrators chose it as the 2011 selection for the Open Book Initiative for first-year students. The Open Book Initiative is a program designed to build community between first-year students by giving them the same material to read, and, therefore, common ground over which they can connect.
BethAnn Zambella, director of the High Library, was involved in choosing this year’s selection. “We felt that it was very interdisciplinary in its appeal. There’s a human-interest story, there’s a medical, scientific story. There’s a story of Skloot’s involvement with the family as a journalist and a writer. So there are lots of ways to approach conversations about the book,” Zambella said, describing the reasoning behind the choice. Some other reasons she mentioned were the book’s excellent writing and local connection, as the events described in the book take place in Baltimore, Md. A display has been set up in the High Library lobby by Access Services Librarian Louise Hyder-Darlington to showcase the selection.
The Lancaster Literary Guild facilitated the connection through which having Skloot as Etown’s keynote speaker at SCAD became possible. SCAD is the annual two-day conference where Etown students showcase their research and creative pursuits. Skloot’s keynote address will serve as a capstone event for the program. With the help of the Guild, as well as SCAD organizer and associate professor of education Dr. Rachel Finley-Bowman, Skloot’s presentation at the event was finalized. In an email interview, Finley-Bowman described the process of getting Skloot’s participation: “I contacted her agent, discussed with her what Elizabethtown was doing regarding programming with SCAD and the Open Book, and both Rebecca and the agent loved the idea.”
In addition to Skloot, David Lacks, Henrietta’s son, will be joining the SCAD events. Lacks and Skloot will take part in a panel discussion following Skloot’s address to give a deeper perspective on Henrietta and her family’s story. “The Q & A panel with David Lacks should also be exciting because of the human connection it provides to the book’s protagonist,” Finley-Bowman said.
Skloot first became interested in Henrietta Lacks’ story after a brief mention of Lacks’ scientific impact in Skloot’s high school biology class. The topic became an obsession for her, later turning into a decade-long discovery of who Henrietta Lacks really was, and what impact the medical research had on her family.
Etown students are being given the opportunity to learn from Skloot’s hard work through her keynote address, and perhaps gain some inspiration for their own endeavors. “I think hearing from someone who’s in the public eye is always a learning experience. They might learn about what really drives an author, they might learn what gets you through a project that takes a really long time,” Zambella said. “To think you could sustain yourself on just one project! So I think that she might be able to teach us something about persistence, and patience, and some of those qualities that are a little bit hard to find in our texting, automatic world.”
All students are encouraged to attend this special event that the Lancaster Literary Guild made possible. This event is free and open to the public.
The keynote address will take place at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 24. The panel discussion will follow at 3:30 p.m. A book signing has also been scheduled after these events on the first floor of Leffler Chapel and Performance Center.