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Q&A: Rebecca Skloot

12 Nov, 2010

Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot

Winner of the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize, among numerous other awards, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a tale of scientific discovery and a poor southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot spent ten years researching and writing the book. Here, she tells Ruth Paget how a science lesson when she was 16 set in motion her fascination with HeLa cells and the woman behind them.

Did you like science at school?

Not at all when I was younger! I had no interest in science classes at all, and I wasn’t a very good student. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work, it was that I was pretty bored in school and just didn’t do very well.

When I was 16 I was taking biology at a local community college because I had failed it at high school. I had always been fascinated by medicine and veterinary medicine and it was in that class that I first learnt about Henrietta’s cells. My teacher mentioned these extraordinary cells that had been alive since the fifties because a woman died.

I think there are moments that often happen in school – like my teacher mentioning HeLa cells – and it just grabbed me. They spark your curiosity. I think if you are curious about something it is important to follow up on it as it often leads to something interesting and important for you. I had teachers who encouraged me to follow those moments, I didn’t even know science writing existed at this point.

How did you become a science writer?

I did biology at college [university] and my plan was to go to veterinary school, which is similar to going to study medicine in the USA. There was no question that I was going to be a veterinarian.

Then, in my first year, I took a class in creative writing as part of my course, as you had to study modules from outside your chosen subject. I really fell in love with writing. In my elective class the students responded intensely to what I was writing about. The teacher said that I obviously ‘got’ science and that I could write about it in a way people could understand, which not a lot of people could do. That’s when I decided to do a graduate course in non-fiction writing.

Have you ever been a scientist?

When I was at college, I worked in various labs while studying. I took time off between school and college (about five years) and during that time I became a veterinarian technician and also worked in a number of hospitals and labs. I worked in a neurology lab on HeLa cells too. Even at that point after first finding out about them at 16, I was still wondering about the cells and where they had come from.

How did you get the idea for your book?

I had had the obsession with HeLa cells for a long time but I had never thought about writing about Henrietta Lacks until I started studying writing. I was fascinated about the cells but I didn’t think I would be the one who went and figured this all out! For my graduate degree in writing you had to write a book-length thesis. I had planned to write 12 stories about women in science. I wrote Henrietta as number one on my proposal and I wasn’t sure who the other women would be. I couldn’t get my head around writing a whole book on one thing. I was pretty young and most writers struggle with that when they start.

It was the first time I contacted her family that I realised this was going to be a book as it was more than just her cells. The book is as much about the cells as it is about Henrietta’s children and the effects on the family.

Why do you think it is important to tell this story?

It is important for a lot of reasons. So much of science today and the future of medicine depends on research on biological samples, such as cells and tissues. I think it’s important to remember there is a human being behind every single one of those samples that scientists use.

It’s important to look at the ethical issues as we move forward and ask questions about how we can direct research in a way that allows science to progress without harming people on the way. We need to give people the opportunity to say if they would like their cells to be used because consent still isn’t required for most tissue research in the USA or the UK.

I think it is also important to remember there is a human being behind the scientist persona too. Just like the scientists don’t generally think about the people the cells come from, the general public don’t think about scientists as people too. Scientists are usually well intentioned, they are trying to cure cancer for example, and do important research to help society, but occasionally that has happened at the expense of other people and we should try to prevent that.

For more see Rebecca Skloot has set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. A portion of the proceeds from her book will go to the Foundation, to help ensure that the Lacks family has access to education and healthcare.

A version of this interview will appear as part of the online articles for Big Picture on the Cell, which will be published in print and online in mid-December 2010. Big Picture is the Wellcome Trust’s free educational magazine for 16+ students and learners of all ages. You can download the PDFs of the magazine online or subscribe for free to receive every issue by post.

Image credit: Manda Townsend

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