February 8, 2012
Page-turner: 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' is university's 2012 common reading book
Debates on race, research and bioethics won't be a surprise on the Kansas State University campus next fall -- they'll be encouraged, and all because of the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
The best-selling book by author Rebecca Skloot is the 2012 Kansas State Book Network, or KSBN, selection. That means incoming first-year students and the campus community will participate in thought-provoking discussions and activities tied to the book throughout the fall.
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is based on the true story of Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells -- known as HeLa to the many scientists who use them -- were taken without her knowledge and used to help develop some of the most important advances in medicine, including the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more. Lacks was never recognized or compensated for the use of her cells.
"The Kansas State Book Network's book selection committee is excited about choosing 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' for this fall," said Stephen Kiefer, co-chair of the book network and director of the university honors program. "We received a lot of input from the university community on the KSBN website, and comments were very enthusiastic. That positive response reflected the committee members' as we discussed our choice. We know that the book will generate wonderful discussions throughout the university and that great events can be built around it."
The campus launch of the 2012 book selection will be in March, with details to posted on the Kansas State Book Network website, http://www.k-state.edu/ksbn, and in K-State Today soon, said Karin Westman, co-chair of the book network and head of the department of English.
"Now in its third year, KSBN has found yet another book which will get people talking," Westman said. "With 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' we look forward to compelling conversations about individual rights, bioethics and the complex history of race in American culture."
K-State joins a number of other universities in selecting the book about Lacks for their first-year reading programs or university reading programs, including Purdue University and Southern Methodist University.
"A common book provides incoming students with a topic of conversation -- something they can talk about with each other and other members of the K-State family from the moment they arrive on campus," said Emily Lehning, assistant vice president of student life, director of new student services and co-director of K-State First, the university's first-year student experience program.
"KSBN has two key purposes," said Greg Eiselein, professor of English and co-chair of K-State First. "We want to encourage new students to engage with good books and challenging ideas from the very start of their K-State careers. Common reading experiences are also a great way to build campus community and to welcome new students to the university."
Lehning said students enrolling on the Manhattan campus will receive a copy of the book as part of the reading program. Faculty and staff who would like a copy for use with students can contact Tara Coleman or Kiefer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fall events related to the book are in the planning stages and may include a visit by author Skloot, as well as panel discussions with K-State and community experts on bioethics, history, law, biography, African-American culture and other topics, according to Westman and Kiefer.
Just like the previous reading program selections of "The Hunger Games" and "Zeitoun," faculty members are excited to begin using "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" in their classes with first-year students, including Christopher Culbertson, associate professor of chemistry.
"We use HeLa cells acquired from Henrietta Lacks in some of our research, but I had no idea at all about the history behind these cells," Culbertson said. "The book was a real eye-opener for me. I also sit on scientific review panels for the National Institutes of Health and this book really made me appreciate the detailed human subject protocols now required for researchers by NIH to make sure that people are well informed about any research that they or tissues taken from them might be subjected to.
"I think that all students need to be made aware of and should reflect on the biomedical issues raised in this book for they will need to be able to make informed, intelligent choices at the ballot box over the course of their lifetimes about our increasing ability to fundamentally manipulate life and the ethics of doing so," he said.
More information about "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and author Skloot is available at http://rebeccaskloot.com.