Last night, as part of the Spectrum Series’ ongoing exploration of “Technology and Community,” science writer Rebecca Skloot presented to the Denison community a chilling scenario, one that seemed straight out of an H.G. Wells or Michael Crichton novel.
Without asking for consent, a doctor extracts cells from a terminally ill patient. After she dies, her cells continue to replicate in the laboratory and essentially live forever. The cells spark a revolution in medical research and give rise to a billion dollar industry. Her impoverished family has no clue any of this is happening.
Skloot’s tale, of course, wasn’t fiction. It was the story of Henrietta Lacks, the central figure in her best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In her lecture at Swasey Chapel, Skloot made the case for mutual responsibility between communities and technology, as represented by scientists. Lacks’ story “is about the importance of people being willing to learn about science, and scientists being able to explain it to them,” she said. “That’s something we struggle with a lot in this country and the world.”
Skloot also shared with the audience her own story, noting how her original plans to become a veterinarian changed with a single college course, an elective in creative writing. It was “one of those classic moments in school…the little things that are so easy to miss, but completely change your life,” Skloot recalled.
Earlier in the day, Skloot spent time with Denison’s own creative writers, sharing experiences and insights with students in Dennis Read’s class, Adventures in Literary Non-Fiction.