University of Vermont

The Honors College

Author Rebecca Skloot - Zeltzerman Lecture

Rebecca Skloot

Over the summer of 2011, the 180 students in Honors College Class of '15 (or the Class of Irene as some of us think of them) read, as their assigned summer reading, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This year, for the first time (and by design), the HCOL Summer Reading coincided with the UVM First-Year Summer Read; our students were reading the book alongside about 2300 of their first-year peers.

The Immortal Life is both a compelling and a complex book, braiding together as it does the story from the scientific community of HeLa (the immortal cervical cancer cells that were removed from the dying African American woman Henrietta Lacks in 1951), the Lacks family themselves and particularly Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, and the amazing education of journalist Rebecca Skloot herself as she researches the story and finds herself far more involved in it than she would ever have expected. It is a story about race and poverty, about the power of education (or the powerlessness that comes from a lack of education), about scientific ambition and progress, about mental illness, about family and belief.

There was much to discuss in our First-Year Seminar this fall as we dove into The Immortal Life, and those discussions only whetted our appetite for Skloot's visit to campus on October 11 to give the Zeltzerman Lecture. Ira Allen Chapel was packed to the gunnels, all 900-plus seats filled with UVM students, faculty, staff, and members of the Burlington community. Recognizing that more than half of her audience was made up of first-year college students, and also cognizant of the fact that none of those students had heard a Convocation speaker (Convocation having been cancelled due to Tropical Storm Irene), Skloot took the occasion to speak about her own journey to The Immortal Life. From an alternative high school for kids who had failed out of a regular high school, to community college, to a pre-vet major, to her discovery of the power of writing and her first piece of writing on Henrietta Lacks in a required college writing class (in response to a prompt focusing on "things that have been forgotten"), Skloot's story points to how important it is to pursue your passions even when it feels risky, even when it's not what you had "planned." There's a spark, she said, an interest that often grabs you early in your life, even before you're 18. It's worth it, she reminded her audience, to take some time to think about what that thing is and not to ignore it, to follow your innate curiosity into the rest of your life.

The question period, moderated by Honors College Associate Dean Lisa Schnell, gave audience members the opportunity to ask questions specifically about the book and the continued presence of Henrietta's story in Skloot's own life. "Tell us how the Lacks family is doing?" "What can this story teach us about health care policy in this country?" "How do you understand the ethics of your own involvement in the Lacks family story?" "What are you working on now?" And this, a question that could only have been asked in Vermont: "Do you think Henrietta Lacks deserves a Ben and Jerry's flavor and if so, what would it be called?"

A book signing followed the talk and question period, with a line of people extending from deep in North Lounge to the Billings Apse, where Skloot was sitting at a table graciously signing copies of the book (some dog-eared!). The next morning, Honors College students were privileged to have a private audience with Skloot when she arrived to address Dean Rizvi's 8:30 class (to which all students in the first year Honors College class had been invited). Casually dressed in jeans and a sweater, Skloot might have been mistaken for a student herself. And as she answered students' questions about her career and about the process by which she wrote the book, she indeed connected with the students as though she was a slightly older peer, a very accomplished peer, but one who spoke with real authenticity and warmth about finding the thing that you are passionate about, and about the potentially obsessive dedication to a task and to excellence that naturally follows on the heels of that passion. Together with the previous evening's talk and Q&A, the morning session with Skloot left Honors College students feeling awed and inspired. And grateful for the opportunity to talk with someone whose work has mattered so much to so many people.

Last modified January 30 2012 11:38 AM