Science writer Rebecca Skloot to speak at UMKC

Skloot chronicled the story of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells

The award-winning science writer who made HeLa cells famous, Rebecca Skloot, will discuss her research and the book that resulted at the Social Justice Book Lecture at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Skloot is the author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, known as HeLa, were taken without her knowledge and became one of the most important tools in medicine. The HeLa cell line, continuously grown in culture ever since, has been used extensively in research, such as in developing the polio vaccine and cloning.

The author of the New York Times bestseller will give the keynote address at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13 in Pierson Auditorium, Atterbury Student Success Center, 5000 Holmes St.

“It is a privilege to have Rebecca Skloot as our speaker for the Social Justice Book Lecture,” said Susan B. Wilson, vice chancellor of Division of Diversity & Inclusion. “It will be fascinating to hear about how Rebecca brought the story of Henrietta Lacks to life. This provocative book raises important questions about race, medical ethics and research in poor communities.”

Lacks, known to scientists as HeLa, developed an aggressive cancer and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment. Her cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and became one of the most important tools used in gene mapping, in-vitro fertilization and other research areas. Lacks died at age 31.

Today, HeLa is the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide, bought and sold by the billions, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Shortly after learning about Lacks and HeLa cells in a biology class, Skloot was driving her father back and forth to the hospital for experimental treatment. She said that at age 16 and as a result of her father’s treatments, she became curious about the HeLa.

Skloot spent a decade chronicling the story, including getting to know Lacks’ family and win the trust of her daughter, Deborah. The family did not know about Lacks’ “immortality” or the profits her cells generated for more than 20 years after her death.

She wove together the story of Lacks, HeLa and the devastation the research process had on Lacks’ family.

Skloot’s award winning science writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; and Discover. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. She has worked as a correspondent for WNYC’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She and her father, Floyd Skloot, co-edited “The Best American Science Writing 2011.”

The Social Justice Book Lecture, sponsored by the Division of Diversity & Inclusion, is free and open to the public. It will be held at the UMKC Atterbury Student Success Center, Pierson Auditorium, 5100 Rockhill Rd. Free parking is available in the Cherry Street Parking Garage, 50th & Cherry Streets, on levels five and six only.


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