By Laura Misch
On February 26th the University of Portland hosted best-selling author, Rebecca Skloot, as the 2018 Schoenfeldt Distinguished Writer. She gave an amazing talk addressing everything from her famous book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to goldfish surgery (yes, it’s a real thing!). It was a great event filled with laughter and critical conversation. Here were a few of the big takeaways.
Mortal No More
For those who haven’t read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it tells the story of HeLa cells—the first immortal human cell line in history. These cells came from a poor, black woman named Henrietta Lacks, who was being treated for cervical cancer. The problem was that Henrietta’s doctors took her cancer cells without permission, but this wasn’t actually all that uncommon at the time.
Skloot opened her talk with a history lesson. In the ‘50s, Johns Hopkins offered free medical care to poor African-Americans living in the area. However, this care came with a price. In return for free care, doctors felt they had a right to experiment on patients, so they did. They took cell samples from pretty much everyone who came into the hospital, so Henrietta was actually one of many. Yet, unlike the rest, her cells are still alive today; they were doubling “within a day of her leaving the hospital.”
According to Skloot, Henrietta’s sample from a tumor the “size of a nickel” gave way to what is, today, 50 million metric tons of live HeLa cells as well as the formation of a multi-billion dollar industry.
School Struggles & A Science Story
School wasn’t smooth sailing for Skloot. While growing up in Portland, she got kicked out of several schools. The first time—believe it or not—was in pre-school when she was “expelled for refusing to nap.” In high school, she had a 0.5 GPA because she was too bored to show up. But, these academic struggles are what led her to Henrietta. Skloot “failed biology at the local high school,” so she signed up for a class at PCC. In the class, her teacher wrote out the name “Henrietta Lacks” on the board and shared the only two facts he knew about her: she was the mother of HeLa cells and a black woman. In that moment, Skloot’s curiosity was born.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel Vision
Before becoming a writer, Skloot hoped to be a veterinarian. Throughout college, she had what she now calls “veterinary tunnel vision.” It was totally unexpected when she fell in love with writing during a class that she only took to fulfill a foreign language credit (I guess creative writing does seem “foreign” to some people). However, what ultimately changed Skloot’s career path was the encouragement she got from a professor.
“He brought to class a stack of catalogues for writing programs…and he said, ‘You know, you don’t have to become a veterinarian just because that’s what you always thought you were going to do. There’s this thing called science writing. It’s really important, and I kind of think that’s what you need to do.’
It had never crossed my mind to not become a veterinarian. And in that moment, he said to me this quote, ‘Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you failed as long as you have a new goal in its place. That’s not giving up; it’s just changing directions, which can be one of the most important things you do in your life.’”
An Education on Privilege
As a Portland native, Skloot admitted that the city, which has a historically small African-American population, “struggles with diversity.” Thus, spending so much time with Deborah Lacks—Henrietta’s daughter—was truly an eye-opening experience for Skloot.
“I went to Deborah’s world, and my time with her taught me so much about race in this country, about what the word ‘privilege’ means, and how I had that. And how being able to walk into places and say [that] I want information was actually a privilege that I had never understood that I had.
Just watching her really taught me that education is a privilege that I had fought against my whole life. It was just sort of a given. I got a good education…And Deborah didn’t. She didn’t have access to a lot of her basic education…She couldn’t really read and write. She would carry around a dictionary with her everywhere she went so she could look up words she didn’t understand. And it was so inspiring to see somebody who wanted to learn so badly and was willing to fight for information.”
Curiosity Is Key
“A lot of what kept us [Skloot and Deborah] going [with the book] was just curiosity. We were both just really curious, and this is something that I like to tell students. I think one of the most important things you can do in school is learn to recognize your own curiosity and follow that, because it’s so easy to miss it.
I always say students [should] look for these things that I call ‘what moments,’ and they’re moments that just make you stop and go, ‘Wait, what?’ And everything I’ve done in my career, I can trace back to one of these moments.”
(One “what moment” led to one of her favorite magazine pieces, which she wrote about goldfish surgery. Check out “Fixing Nemo” here.)
It truly was a wonderful night full of stories that resonate with every UP student, but for me, the overarching message was this: Don’t be afraid to stray from the path; it may lead you somewhere great.