Freshman Reading Selection Delves into Bioethics, Privacy, and the Effect of Race, Class and Gender on Medical Care

September 3, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Each year the entire USC Upstate community–from Student Affairs to academic departments–reads a single book and participates in a range of activities centered on the book’s theme. Called PREFACE, the annual freshman tradition combines academic courses like English 101-102 with extracurricular such as visits from nationally known authors to create meaningful social and educational experiences. This fall’s PREFACE selection is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a highly acclaimed best seller. Rebecca Skloot learned about Henrietta Lacks in a biology class in an alternative school.  It became a story she couldn’t forget, and she spent 10 years reading, researching, and writing this book. 

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, but she lives on today. Cells from a biopsy of her cervical cancer – taken without her consent – became the first immortal cell culture, the HeLa cells. Her cells, one of the most important tools in medicine, were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; and leading to advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. 

But the woman for whom the cells are named is virtually unknown. She was a tobacco farmer who is buried in an unmarked grave.  Although HeLa cells have been bought and sold by the billions, her family has never seen any of the profits, and one of her adult sons cannot afford treatment for his own cancer.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an especially appropriate study as our country debates health care and the expanding possibilities of scientific research which hold more promise and raise more concerns about privacy and human dignity than ever before. The book raises important issues such as bioethics, scientific development, and the effect of race, class, and gender on medical care. 

Many events are planned this fall to delve into the issues raised in the books.

Medical Research and Vulnerable Populations: The U.S. Public Health Service Study at Tuskegee
Tuesday, September  7, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., HPAC 120
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. 

The Way of All Flesh
Tuesday, September 14, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., HPAC 120
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.

 ‘Ain’t I  A Woman?’  A Historical Dissection of the African American Female Experience
 Wednesday, September 15, 6:00  – 7:00 p.m., HPAC 120
Dr. Carmen Harris, associate professor of history, discusses the long and troubling history of the unauthorized appropriation of black women’s bodies. 

An Ounce of Prevention: Cancer and College Students
Tuesday, September 21, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., HPAC 120
Glaydeane Lee from the Cancer Association of Spartanburg and Cherokee Counties discusses cancer prevention for college students. 

 HeLa Live
Thursday, September 23, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., Tukey Theater
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.

The Way of All Flesh
Tuesday, September 28, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., HPAC 120
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. 

Great Conversations about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Tuesday, October 7, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., CLC Ballroom
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. Sponsored by Student Life.

The Immortal Life Meets Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Tuesday, October 26, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m., CLC Ballroom
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!

Student-Led Conference
Tuesday, November 9, 6:00 – 7:25 p.m., CLC Ballroom
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 November 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. 

For more information about PREFACE, visit