Author Rebecca Skloot to Present Free Public Lecture at UCR as Part of Immortality Project Lecture Series

Her book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," raises and addresses questions of ethical issues of race and class in medical research

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Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, will speak at UC Riverside on Nov. 20, 2014.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The story of a set of human cells that have been used extensively in medical research for more than six decades, the tragic history of the woman they were taken from, and the accompanying ethical issues of race and class in medical research will be discussed in a free public lecture by New York Times bestselling writer Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 in the Highlander Union Building, room 302 on the campus of the University of California, Riverside.

Doors open at 5:15 p.m. and the lecture begins at 6:00 p.m. with a question and answer session to follow. A book signing will also take place at the conclusion of the evening. Seating is limited. Free parking will be available in Parking Lot 1.

Skloot’s book examines the history of the first-known human immortal cell line used for medical research, called HeLa, and the woman who unknowingly provided the cells, Henrietta Lacks. It has received several awards, including the National Academies Best Book of the Year Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Best Young Adult Book Award and the Heartland Prize for non-fiction.

Skloot’s appearance is part of the year-long lecture series hosted by The Immortality Project, which was established at UC Riverside in 2012 by Professor John Martin Fischer with a $5 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality.

“‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ is about a certain kind of immortality – not as a conscious being, and not just in terms of ‘memories’ and ‘fame’, but as the ‘donor’ of cells that continue to multiply indefinitely,” Fischer said. “The book is beautifully written and raises issues about social justice and informed consent.  It discusses these difficult and disturbing issues in a way that remains humane and personally compelling throughout.”

“I think one of the things that really makes The Immortal Life powerful for students is that the story is so personal for them,” Skloot said. “Everyone in the world has benefited personally from HeLa cells in some way, and there’s always a point in the book when readers realize this, whether it’s because they’ve gotten vaccines developed using HeLa cells, were conceived through in vitro fertilization, or any number of other things. Students often tell me that their mother or father is alive because their cancer was treated with a drug made using HeLa cells… I look forward to being with the students at UCR and sharing with them the way the Lackses story affects us all.”

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The cover of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Courtesy Rebecca Skloot

Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs at UC Riverside, read the book as part of the campus’ Diversity Book Club and was inspired to reach out to Fischer about inviting Skloot to campus to speak.

“I was moved by the book, by the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, and the cross-cultural concepts of immortality. The story brings together questions of ethics, race and medicine in a thought provoking way,” Simons said. “With the concept of immortality front and center in my mind, I reached out to Professor Fischer and he agreed that the story was one that fit well into the concept behind the Immortality Project. There was a fantastic response by groups from across the campus who wanted to be a part of the event.”

Sponsors for the lecture include the Immortality Project Endowed Lecture Series/CHASS, HUB Distinguished Lecture Series, former Executive Vice Chancellor Dallas Rabenstein, the UCR School of Medicine, the Office of the Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Excellence & Equity, the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, University Librarian Steven Mandeville-Gamble, Office of TRiO, and African Student Programs.

Fischer has been using the book as assigned reading his CHASS First class on death and immortality during Fall ’14. “The students will read it throughout the fall quarter and each week they will make presentations on the book as they read it,” he said. “It will be particularly meaningful for the students to then attend the lecture.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Excellence Yolanda Moses agreed, saying that she hopes other students will be moved to read the book.

“Rebecca Skloot has written a remarkable book about science, race, families and about a particular time in our country’s history,” she said. “While we had this book two years ago as a part of the Diversity book club reading for staff and faculty, I am particularly excited about the fact that this book will be read by UC Riverside students this time around.”

The book, which is available for sale at the UCR Campus Store, took a decade to research and write. It tells the history of Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She underwent surgery and radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, during which time a sample of her tumor was removed without her permission and given to Dr. George Otto Gey.

Lacks died on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31, but Gey discovered that the cells behaved differently than most human cells, in that they did not die after a few divisions and could be used for the conducting of many experiments. The cell line was used by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1954 to develop a vaccine for polio and they have since been mailed to scientists around the world for research projects.

Lacks’ family became aware of the cell line in the 1970s and in recent years her descendants have become more involved in overseeing the access to and regulation of the cell line and the DNA code.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-4756

Additional Contacts

Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs
Tel: (951) 827-4576

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