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Rebecca Skloot talks process and balance in writing About Science


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than six years, named a best book of 2010 by more than 60 media outlets, translated into more than 25 languages, and adapted into an HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey. In Peterborough for her first MacDowell Fellowship, the author will share the path that led her to write the captivating story with the MacDowell Downtown audience tomorrow, June 1, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture.

Skloot was 16 when she first heard the story behind the so-called HeLa cells as described by her biology teacher. This line of human cells were the first cancer cells to be kept alive and propagated in laboratories for decades for the benefit of scientific research. According to her teacher, virtually nothing was known about the woman whose cells had become essential to so much clinical research. The notion scientists had been studying the cells without acknowledging the person behind them stuck with the young student.

“Nearly a decade later when I took my first writing class,” says Skloot, “my curious obsession with Henrietta was the first thing I wrote about.”

As she progressed through her education toward a veterinary career, Skloot says she pondered the moral implications of taking cells from someone without their knowledge. She wondered whether Henrietta had a family. At the suggestion of a writing professor—she was fulfilling a non-science requirement at the time—Skloot eventually changed her course of study and pursued an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction.

In that same college writing course, Skloot wrote about her years spent as a veterinary technician in animal shelters, veterinary clinics, a veterinary morgue, and research labs. The strength of her writing about those experiences and the ethical questions they raised led her writing instructor to suggest that she become a science writer, so she could merge her interests.

“I came to realize that the world of science and the general public often don’t understand each other,” she says. “Scientists can have a hard time communicating their ideas, and the public can be mistrustful of scientists.”

During her residency at MacDowell, Skloot is working on a new book about humans, animals, scientific research, and ethics. It’s a story, she says, that goes back even farther in her life than The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does.

“In a many ways, the stories behind my next book and the experiences that led to them are a large part of what shaped me into the person who wrote the Henrietta Lacks book,” says Skloot. “This book is much more personal while also being a research based, journalistic story.”

Skloot—who has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of California Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh, New York University, and others, and worked for years as a freelance science writer—acknowledges she walks a fine line when writing about animals, science, and ethics. “There are a lot of passionate feelings on all sides of the animal research and animal rights divide,” she says. “There are no easy answers, and there’s a lot of misinformation, which makes it very hard for people to have productive conversations regardless of where they stand.”

To learn more about Rebecca Skloot and how she explores the intersections of science and everyday life, don’t miss tomorrow’s edition of MacDowell Downtown at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. The evening is free and open to all, and begins promptly Friday at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m., and light refreshments will be served.