Five years ago, during my first year as a biology teacher, I ordered a lab kit for my 9th grade biology students. The lab involved investigating the chromosomes of cancerous cells and identifying how they differ from non-cancerous cells.
When the package arrived I read the background information provided with the lab and noticed the cells were called “HeLa” cells. But, where did the cells come from? I googled HeLa and discovered an amazing article, “Henrietta’s Dance”, in Johns Hopkins Magazine by Rebecca Skloot. I was mesmerized by the story of Henrietta Lacks. Thanks to the great information in the article, I decided to incorporate a bioethics debate into the unit. My students loved it! You can see an article about their experience here. This is a passage from the article:
”I learned quite a bit about bioethics and how people have different standings on different issues,’ recalled freshman Stevie McHugh. Griffin Hunt summed up the experience, ‘The cancer lab was fascinating and exciting. It was so fun to see cancer cells. The debate was awesome, too.”
Last year, my students got the chance to hear Rebecca Skloot talk about a book she was writing on Henrietta Lacks at the Science Online ’09 conference in North Carolina. The students conversed with each other online while Skloot was speaking in order to share their feelings about what they were learning. You can tell how captivated they were by reading their statements. A lot of that is owed to the powerful story and the amazing skill Skloot possesses in storytelling. Any story that so powerfully captures students this age and makes them want to learn is truly inspiring.
Next month, the current biology students will get a chance to examine these “immortal” cells!
I’m very excited that Skloot has now published her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and it’s getting an incredible number of great reviews.
“As if someone had managed to distill & purify the more addictive qualities of ‘Erin Brockovich’, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil’, and ‘The Andromeda Strain.’” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“This is an extraordinary gift of a book, beautiful and devastating – a work of outstanding literary reportage. Read it! It’s the best you will find in many many years.” – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Author of Random Family
“This is an extraordinary book, haunting and beautifully told.” – Eric Schlosser, Author of Fast Food Nation
Thanks to all the great media coverage this book has been getting, one 9th grade student has been so inspired by the story of HeLa cells that he has decided to make it part of his science fair project!
Any 9th grade biology student or AP biology student is welcome to read this book for extra-credit. I’m hopeful one of my students will review it and let me know how I should incorporate it into the class as required reading during our cancer unit. I’m reading it as well, but I’d really like a student’s perspective.
Next month, I’ll post pictures & video of our lab and bioethics debate on this blog! Hopefully, I’ll also be posting a student review of Skloot’s book!