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The Importance of Curiosity

EVANSTON --- Rebecca Skloot, the bestselling author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” last week told an audience that packed Northwestern’s Ryan Auditorium that she first learned of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells that are Lacks’ legacy in a biology class at age 16.

It was what Skloot later called a “what?” moment -- when a subject piques her curiosity and won’t let go. A decade after first hearing Henrietta Lacks’ name, Skloot set out on an obsessive, 10-year project to unearth the story of Lacks and her descendants and the scientific breakthroughs and multimillion-dollar industry that HeLa cells spawned.

Skloot’s book tells the story of Lacks, an African American woman in the “colored ward” of a Baltimore hospital who, in the 1950s, unwittingly donated the cells that spawned one of science’s most important cell lines. As the 2011-2012 One Book One Northwestern selection, the book for months has been a springboard for discussion and a host of on- and off-campus activities about science, biomedical ethics, race and family.

Delivering the One Book keynote address Thursday, Skloot recounted her bumpy road to becoming a science writer, thanked her audience for “keeping the story of Henrietta Lacks alive” and then took questions.

Skloot said she was taking the basic biology class at a community college when her teacher spoke of HeLa cells and wrote the name Henrietta Lacks across a blackboard. He then said what many biology teachers at some point tell their students -- “that there are these amazing cells that have been alive since 1951 even though the woman they came from died.”

“What?” Skloot remembered thinking. In her keynote, she urged her audience to pay attention to those “what?” moments and to take careful note of the things that most interest them. “Honing your ability to recognize your curiosity and follow it is one of the most important things you can do,” she told students.

To teachers in the audience, she had another message. No matter how bored, disengaged or distracted your students may appear, you never know what one sentence you say may forever influence a student.

Skloot recounted how after class she cornered the teacher who wrote Henrietta Lacks’ name across the blackboard and asked for more information about her. Stating he knew nothing beyond the fact that Lacks was black, he urged his young student to do a little extra-credit research on the woman for whom HeLa cells are named.

Before publishing her book, Skloot tracked down the teacher and sent him the manuscript of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It was too late for her to receive extra credit, she said, but it was clear proof that his student was paying attention.
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