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Best-selling author Rebecca Skloot coming home for PCC Reads
Photos and Story by James Hill
Acclaimed author Rebecca Skloot, who penned the New York Times best seller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is coming to Portland Community College for its PCC Reads Program.
Skloot, one of 50 PCC Diamond Alums honored during the college’s 50th anniversary, will appear with Pamela Blumenthal, director of alternate programs and Narce Rodriguez, Rock Creek dean of student development, in a question-and-answer event at 10 a.m., Thursday, May 17, in the Event Center, Building 9, Rock Creek Campus.
In addition, she will speak at 6 p.m., that evening at the Slavic Church Emmanuel, (2025 S.E. 82nd Ave), next door to PCC’s Southeast Center. The engagements are free to members of the PCC community. Her visit is part of PCC’s Founder’s Week, which will feature events celebrating the college’s 50-year history all week, May 14-19.
Transportation will be provided to the evening event from Cascade and Sylvania’s shuttle stops. At Sylvania, the shuttles will leave at 4:30 p.m. Two 60-seat buses will be available. The Cascade shuttle will leave at 5 p.m. and return after the talk. It requires a reservation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (limited space, first come, first served).
Her work as a science writer has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O – The Oprah Magazine, Discover and many other publications. She has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery and tissue ownership rights. She is also a contributing editor at Popular Science Magazine and has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s RadioLab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. She and her father, Floyd Skloot, are co-editors of The Best American Science Writing 2011.
This is the third year of PCC Reads. In 2010, Sherman Alexie read from his book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and last year Heidi Durrow talked about her novel on racial identity, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.”
“It’s been an exciting opportunity to bring together faculty, students and staff members around exciting literary texts,” said Dave Stout, district chair of PCC Reads and dean of Sylvania’s English and Modern Languages Division. “And the conversations have been deep and rich. The appearance of the author just really carries people’s engagement to a whole another level. It’s been more exciting recently because of Heidi Durrow and Rebecca Skloot’s PCC roots.”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is Skloot’s debut book and took more than a decade to research. It instantly became a New York Times best seller in hardcover, paperback and electronic editions. It was named The Best Book of 2010 by Amazon.com and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. It has won numerous awards, including the Ambassador Book Award in American Studies, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, and two Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year and Best Debut Author of the Year. Rebecca was given the 21st Century Award by the Chicago Library Foundation.
Her visit to PCC marks a return home to where she went to school and got the idea for the book. In 1988, the 16-year-old Skloot was a student at the Metropolitan Learning Center (she dropped out of Lincoln High School her freshman year) and decided to take Defler’s college-level science class at the Sylvania Campus. During that class, he lectured about HeLa cells and attached a name to the cells, sparking Skloot’s curiosity.
“She was such a serious student and a good student and she was so sincere,” Defler said. “What’s happened to Rebecca is really phenomenal.”
As a result of that class, the idea for “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was born. The book tells the story of a poor Southern tobacco farmer, Henrietta Lacks, whom scientists know as HeLa. In 1951, Henrietta developed a strangely aggressive cancer, and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a tissue sample without her knowledge. She died without knowing that her cells would become immortal—the first to grow and survive indefinitely in culture. The cells became of the most important tools in medicine and are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remained virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
“It deals in an engaging way with race and social justice,” Stout added. “For us, the added benefit of this particular book is that it also deals with medical research, medical ethics and inequities in healthcare. These are all topics that have really grabbed the attention of the many, many readers at the college this year. So they are eager to engage her in dialogue.”