OGDEN — Some Ogdenites wear their love of literacy on their sleeves, as evidenced by this year’s Ogden School Foundation Fall Author Event selling out in about a month — way back in March.
Many likely hadn’t heard that Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” was going to be in town until well after tickets had been snapped up.
“This is the earliest it has sold out ever,” said Janis Vause, executive director of the Ogden School Foundation. “We didn’t even design invitations to send out.”
The author event will be held Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Ogden Eccles Conference Center in downtown Ogden. The yearly event is a fundraiser to benefit the Ogden School District.
Normally, the foundation sends out invitations to community members to notify them of the author and how to purchase tickets. What’s the big difference this year? The fact that Skloot is a science writer may play a part.
Skloot’s 2010 book about the woman whose cells are the foundation of many medical breakthroughs is a best-seller, was made into an HBO movie in 2017, and brought medical research ethics to the public’s attention.
“Henrietta Lacks and her amazing cells,” Skloot writes in an email to the Standard-Examiner, were introduced to the bestselling author by a biology teacher. After class, she asked the teacher, “If her cells are so important to science, why don’t we know anything about her?”
Skloot attributes becoming a science writer to following her curiosity about Lacks and her HeLa cells. She’d likely be a veterinarian if it weren’t for wondering about this woman no one seemed to know about.
In college, Skloot signed up for a creative writing class to fulfill her foreign language requirement and was given the prompt to “write for 15 minutes about something someone forgot.”
“I scribbled ‘Henrietta Lacks’ at the top of my page and began writing an essay about her … I was weirdly obsessed with her,” Skloot describes. “I fell in love with writing in that class but still had no intention of becoming a professional writer.”
So how did Skloot become this science writer whose weird obsession became a New York Times best-seller? She says that didn’t happen until later when “my writing teacher pulled me aside and said, ‘You know you don’t have to become a vet just because that’s always what you thought you’d do?’”
He went on to tell her about science writing.
“The next day, I started researching graduate programs in creative writing so I could combine my love of science with my love of writing,” Skloot recounted. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
Skloot’s best advice for budding science writers of any age is to cultivate curiosity.
Despite the difficulty of researching this book, she says, “the whole thing was an incredible journey,” and “the entire process … was a real gift that shaped who I am today.”
Getting words on the page is never easy for Skloot. She often says, “I don’t love writing, but I love having written.” She also loves research and editing and all other aspects of the writing process, but “getting the first draft out of my head and onto paper is a big challenge.”
Henrietta Lacks’ story alerted the populace to troubling aspects regarding scientific research.
“When it comes to tissue research, the question is still whether people should be informed when their tissues are being used in research,” Skloot says. “At this point, nothing has changed in terms of regulation.”
Skloot explains that if tissue is taken specifically for research and has a donor name attached, the donor must give informed consent. However, tissue taken for a routine biopsy or some other purpose doesn’t require consent.
“That was true when my book came out in 2010,” she says, “and it’s true today.”
The difference now is that more of the public is aware of this, instigating a shift in how “many in the world of science approach this issue.”
Researchers have reached out to Skloot telling her they didn’t know the origin of HeLa cells.
“These are questions scientists don’t often think to ask,” she explains.
She says researchers have a new understanding of regulation as a result of this story. And we have “a greater understanding of scientists in all of this, too.” One of Skloot’s goals was to correct the demonization of the scientists in the HeLa story and show that they and other scientists are humans.
Should people be compensated if their tissues are used in scientific research?
“My job as a journalist is to put all the information out there, to show where there are gaps in regulation, so people can discuss the situation and decide what they think, and what they should change,” Skloot said. “My job isn’t to tell people how they should feel about their tissues and whether they are comfortable having them used in research or commercialized.”
Skloot has discovered that most people are amenable to their tissues being used in research as long as researchers get their consent first.
“The truth is,” she says, “most people understand that research on human tissues is essential for the future of medicine and scientific progress, and in general, people want to help with that.”
But this is not the end of ethical questions for Skloot. Her experiences working as a nurse in vet clinics, emergency rooms, shelters, research labs and an animal morgue — and the questions about ethics they prompted — are at the center of her current book-in-progress.
“It’s a topic I’ve been obsessed with for most of my life,” Skloot says of the book about animal research, which she explores “through a very personal story about our complex relationships with animals — their roles in our lives, and in science — and the humans who battle over their fates, and as a result, our own.”
For Skloot, “that core of obsession is the first and most important criteria for writing any story.”
To be notified of next year’s author, which will be announced in a January/February foundation newsletter, sign up by calling 801-737-7305, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations for next year’s tickets can be made beginning Jan. 6.