Q&A with Rebecca Skloot
Multi-award-winning author Rebecca Skloot speaks to Ruth Paget about how a science lesson set in motion her fascination with HeLa cells and the woman behind them, Henrietta Lacks
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 learned about Henrietta’s cells. My teacher mentioned these extraordinary cells that had been alive since the 1950s 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. That’s when I decided to do a graduate course in non-fiction writing.
So much of science today and the future of medicine depend on research on biological samples... I think it’s important to remember there is a human being behind every single one of those samples.
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 became a veterinarian technician, and I 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 ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’?
I had had the obsession with the cells for a long time but I had never thought about writing about her [Henrietta] until I started studying writing. 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 depend 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 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.
* In the UK, consent is not required from living patients if the sample(s) will be anonymised or collected before 1 September 2006, when the new Human Tissue Act came into force. Consent is always required for collection of tissue from a deceased patient, obtained either before the patient’s death or posthumously by a qualifying relation. For more information, see the Human Tissue Authority's FAQ on donating your tissue for research.
‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2010.
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.Lead image:
Rowan University Publications/Flickr