Science writer with Vancouver ties explores story behind HeLa cells

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



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Science writer with Vancouver ties explores story behind HeLa cells

While author was interviewing Lacks’ kin, Skloot’s family had her back

Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Skloot was taking a class at Portland Community College when two words changed her life.

Henrietta Lacks.

Her biology instructor wrote the name on the board during a lecture. Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951, was the source of cells that became invaluable in research.

But Skloot was interested in more than just the science. She wanted to learn about the woman whose identity was short-handed into the name of those invaluable scientific tools — HeLa cells.

That desire led to a best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot will discuss how it all happened Wednesday as featured speaker at Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation’s annual fund-raising dinner. (Tickets no longer are available.)

Skloot previewed her presentation via email.

“I’ll be talking about the story of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ where things stand today with the story of HeLa cells and the Lacks family, and more — including my path to writing the book and becoming a writer,” she said in the email.

Skloot discussed several other topics in the question-and-answer email, including her current project and how she wound up in a college biology class at 16. (Her responses have been slightly edited for style purposes.)


Are you aware of any aspects of HeLa research that might have become part of your own health care?

All of it. Literally. There isn’t a person reading this who hasn’t benefitted directly from research on HeLa cells. They helped create the vaccines we get to protect against polio or any number of other diseases, they helped lead to gene mapping, stem cell research, our most important cancer medications, you name it.


A lot of the book detailed your own personal experiences with members of the Lacks family over 10 years or so. Why did you want to include that?

I fought against being in the book for years. Part of how I won the trust of the family was by telling Henrietta’s daughter Deborah that she could come with me when I did my research, that I would teach her about her mother and the HeLa cells. So we spent a lot of time traveling together.

When I came home from reporting trips filled with stories about my time with the Lacks family, my agent, friends, editor and family all had the same reaction: They’d say, “You have to put that in the book, because the family’s response to you is part of the story — it shows how deeply they’ve been affected by Henrietta’s cells and their legacy.”

Deborah Lacks eventually started saying the same thing (she’d sometimes shake her fist at me and say, “Don’t you make me be in that book by myself!”). But I resisted for years, saying, “I don’t belong in this story — it’s the Lacks family’s story, not mine.” But eventually it became clear to me that part of the Lacks family story was about the many people — scientists, con artists, journalists, you name it — who had come to them over the years wanting something from them related to the HeLa cells. Without realizing it, I had become a character in the Lacks family’s story, because I was another one of those people. In the end, I realized it would be dishonest of me to leave myself out of the book.


Was there ever a point when you thought you’d hit a wall, and needed to find another book to write?

No, but there were many points where I thought I might be 95 years old by the time I finished it.


What is your Portland-area background?

My family moved to Portland when I was 10, so I grew up there, in Northwest Portland (and my mother now lives in Vancouver, and my brother lived there for years with my nephews, so I have roots in Vancouver, as well). So much of who I am today was shaped by growing up in Portland — spending my teen years in Forest Park and Powell’s bookstore — and going to Metropolitan Learning Center (MLC).

I was one of those kids who was smart and had a lot of energy, but didn’t fit well into the traditional school system (my dad is fond of pointing out that the first school I was ever kicked out of was preschool).

I transferred to MLC after dropping out of my freshman year at Lincoln, and it really saved me as a student. MLC let me help shape my curriculum, and gave me the freedom to learn in an untraditional way. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be doing this interview for two reasons: One, because I probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school, and two, because it was through that nontraditional curriculum that I ended up in a biology class at PCC where I learned about Henrietta’s cells for the first time.


Are you familiar with “HeLa High” (Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School) in the Evergreen school district?

Yes! I love the fact that it exists, that it focuses on science and medicine, all in the name of Henrietta. I wear my HeLa High T-shirt and hoodie proudly and often.


What is the subject of your next book, and was the topic influenced in any way by “Immortal Life”?

In many ways the story is similar: The first book told the story behind the HeLa cells, an essential tool in science that everyone benefits from without examining where they came from, or their human cost. My next book explores the human-animal bond, the ethics of our relationships with animals, and their role in science and medical research — it tells a story that explores some of the biggest, and as yet unanswered, questions at the heart of animals’ roles in our lives.

Animal research is another area of science everyone has benefitted from (in even more ways than people have benefitted from HeLa cells), yet people don’t tend to know the stories behind it, or the facts, in part because it’s easier not to look at those stories. (As with HeLa cells.) But it’s always better for everyone if we do.

Before becoming a science writer, I spent more than a decade working as a veterinary technician in animal shelters, vet clinics, emergency rooms, research labs, even an animal morgue. Those experiences, and the ethical questions they prompted, are at the center of my next book, and they’re really the reason I became a writer. I was planning to become a veterinarian but started writing as a way to wrestle with some of the experiences I was having in the world of veterinary medicine.

So in many ways, this book is like a prequel to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It’s part of the story of how I became the person who noticed HeLa cells and started asking the essential questions of that book: Where do you draw the line between the benefit of science and its impact on research subjects (human or animal), how do you draw that line, who decides, etc. In many ways, my next book will do something similar: Tell the story of two worlds in science that often don’t trust each other, don’t understand each other, can’t talk to each other, and as a result, bad things can happen for science and society and research subjects.

Then it asks: What’s the real story here? How can we have a productive conversation based on facts about all of this to promote change that is good for all involved (in this case, the humans, the animals, and the science)?