My Experiences Exploring: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Written By Nicki Holm, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2016-17 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Nicki.jpgFrom an early age, cancer played an integral role in the lives of those closest to me. Her name was Megan, she was my best friend, and she was only eighteen months old when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme. Even though she passed just before her seventh birthday, we experienced together more life than I would rationally think possible in just over six years, and it was losing her that led third grade Nicki to start asking questions like: What is cancer? How could a disease be so indiscriminate that it affects such a wide range of ages, abilities, etc.? And the question seemingly everyone asks, what can we do?  

To set the foundation for one day hoping to have even the slightest understanding of this Emperor of all Maladies — the title and name given to cancer in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Biography of Cancer — I attended California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in pursuit of a B.S. in Biological Sciences, with a concentration in Cellular & Molecular Biology. Over the course of my time at Cal Poly SLO, I took invaluable classes like Genetics, Cell Biology, Virology, and Immunology, but it was not until taking Molecular Biology Laboratory in my fourth year that I ever heard the name Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman from Virginia, whose cells — HeLa, the name given to the cells by taking the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name — came to revolutionize science, yet her name was virtually unknown. While living in Baltimore, Maryland, she was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, and died within only months of diagnosis — yet her cells survived.

With today’s technology, tissue culture is well understood; however, at the time of her diagnosis in the 1950s, cells were yet to be kept viable outside of the original host. With hopes of finding the cell-line that would change this trend, Dr. George Gey took samples of cancer cells from each patient, Henrietta included. Not only did her cells survive, they multiplied at a rate far exceeding anyone’s hopes or expectations. Understanding what this meant for science, Dr. Gey distributed these cells to every scientist he knew, allowing for invaluable research to be performed that ultimately led to the polio vaccine, an understanding of how cells react to certain conditions – including zero gravity after HeLa went to space – and essentially the birth of scientific research as we know it.

book.jpgBeing a person so pivotal to the field, why is it that most scientists do not know the name Henrietta Lacks? And why did Henrietta’s family remain uninformed about this research until decades after her death? Asking similar questions, Rebecca Skloot set out on a journey to write a book — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — about Henrietta’s life, her cells, and the many implications for both her family and the world. Not only did Skloot’s book raise questions of racism, sexism, and the ethics of scientific research, but also, it is through this book that many begin to understand the faulty, not so “objective” history of scientific research, and question why this information is not often taught to emerging scientists. As a former biology undergraduate student who used HeLa cells during course labs, this book only reinforced the need for integration of social justice into science curriculum, as a means of cultivating an era of socially responsible STEM professionals.

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Megan & Nicki on Megan’s Make-A-Wish trip to Disneyworld

Earlier this VISTA year at Cal Poly, I was fortunate enough to participate in a variety of events around Rebecca Skloot’s book, as Cuesta College — a nearby California Community College — chose it to be their book of the year. In celebration, we collaborated and formed book circles at both Cuesta and Cal Poly; involved the book in classroom curriculum with faculty that were interested; hosted student, faculty, and staff panels; and it ultimately culminated in a celebratory event involving members of the Lacks family. My direct participation was in the form of a book circle at Cal Poly — hosted by myself and Dr. Sandi Clement, a Geneticist and Molecular Biologist at Cal Poly — and participation in a panel forum at Cuesta College as part of their Book of the Year event, where I had the opportunity to meet Kim Lacks. Engaging such a diverse audience with very different lived experiences, these events brought together people from all backgrounds to discuss not only the book, but also both how our interests led us to exploring the book and how it will influence our paths moving forward. Who knows if I will pursue a career in cancer research, but if I do, it will remain a priority to keep my memories of Megan, the invaluable contributions of Henrietta, and the sacrifices that so many have made for the advancement of science at the forefront.

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