2014-2015 Speakers

Rebecca Skloot

Author: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

October 20, 2014
7 p.m.

Bestselling author Rebecca Skloot spent over ten years doggedly uncovering the truth about the life, death, and ultimate “immortality” of a poor black tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks. On a tumultuous educational path until a community college biology instructor uttered the words “Henrietta Lacks,” Skloot—with remarkable focus and tenacity—set off on a trajectory that would shine the national spotlight on both, and become the phenomenal book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown 2010/ Broadway 2011).

Recognizable for its engaging, straightforward language, Skloot’s writing— both in The Immortal Life and her many feature articles for major publications—has charmed readers around the world. With this same trademark sensibility, her lectures have been lauded for her ability to make complex issues accessible to diverse audiences. At Emory University, an official described the large audience as being “completely rapt” while the Executive Director of Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research called her “an excellent speaker with a timely message that needs to be heard.” West Virginia University said, “She was one of our top speakers ever!” More than 100 communities, schools, and universities have chosen The Immortal Life for their common read programs, with similar praise for her lectures.

In The Immortal Life, Skloot tells the story of a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951—and left behind an inexplicably immortal line of cells known as HeLa. Henrietta Lacks, whose cells—harvested without her knowledge or consent—contributed to scientific advancements as varied as the polio vaccine, treatments for cancers and viruses, in-vitro fertilization, and the impact of space travel on human cells. The story is also about her children, who were later used in research without their consent and who’ve never benefited from the commercialization of HeLa cells, though the cells have helped biotech companies make millions of dollars. Part detective story, part scientific odyssey, and part family saga, The Immortal Life’s multi-layered approach raises fascinating questions about race, class, and bioethics in America.

Spanning a variety of topics, Skloot’s lectures have fascinated everyone from college undergraduates assigned to read the book to technical medical or legal audiences seeking an expert perspective on medical bioethics.

Skloot has spoken widely at high schools, colleges and professional organizations, including: Johns Hopkins University, Morehouse School of Medicine, The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, Yale University, and more. She has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including The Colbert Report, CBS Sunday Morning, and National Public Radio (NPR) programs including Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. These interviews and more are available at RebeccaSkloot.com

The Immortal Life was selected as a best book of 2010 by over 60 media outlets including: The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Post Book World, and O, The Oprah Magazine. It has enjoyed more than three years on The New York Times bestseller list, and is being translated into more than 25 languages, and made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.

Though best-known for The Immortal Life, Rebecca Skloot has written more than 200 feature articles, personal essays, book reviews, and news stories for The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Columbia Journalism Review; Seed; New York Magazine; Slate; Popular Science; Chicago Tribune; among others. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including Best Food Writing and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is co-editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She was named One of Five Surprising Leaders of 2010 by The Washington Post.

Rebecca Skloot has a B.S. in biological sciences and a MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She is founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Skloot is currently working on a new book about the human-animal bond from her home in Chicago, and remains in close contact with the Lacks family.

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