First-Year Students Tackle Cancer Research, Medical Ethics And Other Important Issues With PREFACE Reading Program

September 10, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Spartanburg, S.C. –University of South Carolina Upstate first-year students are reading Rebecca Skloot’s novel “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and are delving into discussions about cancer research, medical ethics, the troubling history of medical research conducted on vulnerable populations, and many other important issues. USC Upstate’s first-year book program, called PREFACE, combines academic coursework with co-curricular activities to create a meaningful social and educational experience for all USC Upstate first-year students. 

“PREFACE engages different disciplines across campus and introduces students through Composition 101 and University 101 classes to the research process and critical inquiry,” said Dr. Esther Godfrey, assistant professor of English and coordinator of the PREFACE project. “Rebecca Skloot, the author, explores a complex topic and through her research and writing process uncovers a rich and multilayered argument. That process is exactly what we want our students to learn in their classes at USC Upstate and to practice throughout their lives.”

Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge and used for developing the polio vaccine and uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb. While Lacks’ cells helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions, she remains relatively unknown outside the medical field where she is known as “HeLa.”

 In fact, Skloot’s own family did not learn of her vital contribution to medicine until 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

“We have gotten positive feedback from the students about this book selection and have planned a number of interactive events that the students will enjoy,” said Godfrey. “Oprah Winfrey recognized the importance of Skloot’s book and will produce it as an HBO documentary, and I think our students will also see why this book has recently gotten so much national attention.”

Godfrey has events and activities planned throughout the semester to give students a better understanding of the book, of the ethical and personal issues they face, and of the power of knowledge to help them make better decisions for themselves and others. A listing of the events is below. For more information, visit or contact Dr. Esther Godfrey at (864) 503-5688.

 Tues., Sept.  7                6 – 7 p.m.           HPAC 120
“Medical Research and Vulnerable Populations: The U.S. Public Health Service Study at Tuskegee”
Dr. Lynette Gibson, associate professor of nursing, discusses the infamous syphilis study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service at Tuskegee University on 400 poor black men who were neither informed nor treated of their disease.  In 1997, President Clinton formally apologized to African Americans for the study. 

Tues., Sept. 14              6 – 7 p.m.           URC Greatroom
 “The Way of All Flesh”
View the 1997 BBC documentary “The Way of All Flesh” by Adam Curtis, about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line. This film includes interviews with family members and many of the researchers covered in Rebecca Skloot’s book.  This event will be repeated on September 28.

Wed., Sept. 15               6 – 7 p.m.           HPAC Theatre
“‘Ain’t I  A Woman?’  A Historical Dissection of the African American Female Experience”
Dr. Carmen Harris, associate professor of history, discusses the long and troubling history of the unauthorized appropriation of black women’s bodies. 

Tues., Sept. 21              6 – 7 p.m.           CLC 310
 “An Ounce of Prevention: Cancer and College Students”
Glaydeane Lee from the Cancer Association of Spartanburg and Cherokee Counties discusses cancer prevention for college students. 

Thurs., Sept. 23            6 – 7 p.m.           Tukey Theater
“HeLa Live”
Dr. Jeannie Chapman, assistant professor of biology, shows live HeLa cells that she has grown from culture and discusses the implications of the cell line on cancer research.

Tues., Sept. 28              6 – 7 p.m.           URC Great Room
“The Way of All Flesh”
View the 1997 BBC documentary “The Way of All Flesh” by Adam Curtis, about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line. This film includes interviews with family members and many of the researchers covered in Rebecca Skloot’s book. 

Weds., Sept. 29    6 – 7:30 p.m.   CLC Ballroom 
“Power of the Pen: PREFACE Letter Writing Night”
Writing instructors will lead students through the steps to write letters to individuals involved in the issues raised by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.   Students will have the choice of writing letters to the author Rebecca Skloot, the Lacks family, SC legislators, and others.  Snacks provided!  Sponsored by Student Life.

Tues., Oct. 7                    6 – 7 p.m.           CLC Ballroom
 “Great Conversations about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
First-year students join USC Upstate faculty and staff, student leaders from Upstate colleges, and regional community leaders for dinner and roundtable discussions on topics related to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Modeled on the College of Arts and Sciences Evening of Great Conversation, this event blends food, fellowship, and ideas to foster new friendships across campus and to promote thinking about the complex issues in the PREFACE text. No lectures, no quizzes, just great ideas shared around the dinner table. Seating is limited to 120. Free tickets for the event are available beginning Sept. 22 in HPAC 222.

Weds., Oct. 20   6 – 7:30 p.m.  CLC Ballroom 
“The Henrietta Lacks Case: A Medical Ethicist’s Perspective” 
Events described in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raise obvious philosophical questions, and the answers are anything but clear.  Some of the more controversial topics surrounding HeLa will be discussed by USC Upstate professor of philosophy Dr. Richard Combes.

Tues., Oct. 26                 6 – 7 p.m.           CLC Ballroom
 “The Immortal Life Meets Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” 
This game show contest tests students on their knowledge of the issues raised by the book. Brock Adams, instructor of English, leads this interactive event.  Prizes!

Weds., Oct. 27   7:00 – 8:30 p.m.    Tukey Theatre
“Beyond the Color Line: The South”
Students will watch “The South” from the 2007 PBS documentary Beyond the Color Line, in which renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines the future of race relations.  Dr. Benita Dillard, professor of English and African American Studies, will lead discussion after the film.

Tues., Nov. 9                   6 – 7:25 p.m.    CLC Ballroom
Student-Led Conference
Designed and presented by upper-level students, this event brings together students of all ages and majors to discuss the first-year reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Students pick the topics and run the discussions. Relate to the reading in ways that are meaningful to you. Coordinated by Dr. Celena E. Kusch, assistant professor of American literature, this interactive event includes great refreshments, 25-minute discussion sessions with student leaders, and a 25-minute panel discussion that brings together all participants. Sponsored by Student Life.

Student Essay Contest             Awards Announced Nov. 9
The best student essays on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will be nominated for this award by SEGL 101 instructors. Winners will selected by the USC Upstate Composition Committee.  First prize winner receives $250.  The runner-up receives $100.