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Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks during midterms, and reasons for being a science writer

It’s taken me a minute to figure out how I want to talk about my takeaways from reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Being an expert in neither ethics nor law, I’m not sure I can say anything useful about tissue rights or how things should be handled moving forward, except that ask forgiveness, not permission seems like a weird thing to ever have applied to obtaining research samples from human beings.

Instead, I’m going to talk about some interesting coincidences that occurred in the course of my reading this book. (I listened to it on audio from my library, but it’s still reading. The 12.5 hours went by much faster than you would think 12.5 hours goes by.)

The first, and perhaps biggest, of these is that two days before I finished the book, various publications reported on a lawsuit by the Lacks family against Thermo Fisher Scientific, revolving around control of and profits from the HeLa cells.

The second (semi) coincidence is that I was— let’s face it, still am— working on personal statements for grad school, many of which ask about recent reading as it relates to science. This is why it’s only kind of coincidental, I kind of planned that one. But not that these two things would relate through Johns Hopkins.

I didn’t know which medical establishment was involved until I read the book, and I didn’t know that science writing was a thing you could go to school for until last semester, let alone which schools offered it.

The fact that we were covering intellectual property law in one of my journalism classes, and the fact that I had to know genetics are (currently) patentable? Happenstance on the part of the syllabus.

But perhaps the oddest quirk of my reading experience has to do with the fact that I decided to pick up the audiobook instead of the physical copy a few feet away on my dresser.

At the end of the audiobook, there’s an author interview wherein Rebecca Skloot essentially recaps why I want to be a science writer. She hits all the points. To quote directly from the interview (with minor edits for clarity) there is:

“… an inability of scientists to explain things on a level that’s basic enough for the general public to understand them, and also a lack of education enough to really understand some of the science.”

That’s one important part of the disconnect, but she goes on to briefly address the fact that some people are scared off by science, don’t feel like it’s for them, and the importance of making science accessible, since it affects so much of our lives.

If there’s anything the past year and a half has reaffirmed for me, it’s that. And the fact that keeping hand sanitizer on my person is a good idea. But mostly that.

Hearing my own reasons for wanting to go into this line of work rephrased by a published human in the field, who wrote the book on Henrietta Lacks, made something I already knew kind of click.

That is a valid reason for wanting to do this work, not just some change the world, change the culture kind of ideal. And it is something you can do.

Had a lot of weight for being the last thirty seconds of an audiobook author interview, huh? Wasn’t expecting that.

Anyway, I highly recommend that you read this book, whether you’re interested in science or journalism or ethics or none of those things. Maybe you’ll also find yourself in the midst of just enough little things lining up to start thinking maybe it’s Henrietta, maybe it’s a sign (something you have literally never ever been inclined to think ever) as you explain it to people.

If anything, I read it in short order during midterms, and of my own free will, which should be a sign of its quality. I keep talking about it and it wasn’t even assigned to me for discussion.


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