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K-State Today

September 13, 2012

Family perspective: Henrietta Lacks' relatives give on-campus talk about legacy of their mother, grandmother

Submitted by Communications & Marketing

The son and great-granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks will be on the Kansas State University campus to speak about Lacks and her important contributions to science during an upcoming event sponsored by the K-State Book Network.

David "Sonny" Lacks and Veronica Spencer will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, in the K-State Student Union Grand Ballroom. The talk, "A Conversation with the Lacks Family," is part of the series of events associated with the K-State Book Network and this year's university common book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.

"We're so fortunate to host David Lacks, son of Henrietta Lacks, and Veronica Spencer, Henrietta's great-granddaughter," said Karin Westman, professor and head of the department of English and chair of the K-State Book Network public relations/events committee. "Together, they bring to the university community a multi-generational perspective on the complex life and legacy of Henrietta and her cells."

The book is based on the true story of Henrietta 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.

"Bringing guests to campus is a tremendous undertaking," said Emily Lehning, assistant vice president for student life and co-director of K-State First. "We are really fortunate to have the support of students, faculty and staff representing a variety of programs. The collaboration on this opportunity is a great example of how the Kansas State University community comes together to support student learning."

The Lacks family visit will personalize important issues brought up in the book -- issues like the birth of bioethics and the legal battles over informed consent.

"We are especially excited to hear the story of Henrietta Lacks from her family's perspective," said Greg Eiselein, professor of English and co-director of K-State First. "Because her family is such a part of the narrative, this event will give us a chance to meet and talk with some of the people we've met in the book."

During the event, the Lacks family members will discuss what it meant to find out that Henrietta's cells were being bought and sold in laboratories around the world. Their message is meant to convey the pride and honor that their family has for Henrietta Lacks and her unparalleled contributions to science. A book signing will follow the conversation.

"The informal conversation with members of the Lacks family will provide our students with the unique opportunity to hear, firsthand, from some of the principal characters from Rebecca Skloot's book," said Steve Kiefer, director of the University Honors Program and co-chair of the K-State Book Network. "Hearing the perspective of the Lacks family about the existence and use of HeLa cells should prove most enlightening."

"What's great about the Lacks family event is that it will help bring to life the things students have read in the book," said Tara Coleman, associate professor at K-State Libraries and co-chair of the K-State Book Network. "I think for a lot of students that listening to the family may remind them of things they may have heard the older people in their family or community talk about. I'm very pleased by this opportunity."

Other sponsors for the event include K-State First, the University Honors Program, Student Governing Association's Diversity Programming Committee and the Union Program Council. The lead student organization sponsor for the event is Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society, which has established the K-State Lending Library to facilitate university access to the common book. More information about the K-State Lending Library is available at the program's Facebook page at facebook.com/K-StateLendingLibrary.

"We are honored to receive Diversity Programming Committee funds to help host this event that promotes critical conversations about cultural awareness and diversity on campus," said Jessica Reyes, master's student in English, Manhattan, and Sigma Tau Delta officer. "We hope that the Lacks family visit will bring the book alive for students and help us begin to grapple with how medical ethics and race politics can impact individuals."

Since Aug. 13, the K-State Book Network has been counting down the days to the Lacks family visit by tweeting a chapter of the book each day. For more information, visit twitter.com/kstatebknetwork.

For more information about the Lacks family event as well as other events associated with the university common book, visit the K-State Book Network website at www.k-state.edu/ksbn