Author of Community Reading Project followed curiosity

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The author of Grand Valley's Community Reading Project book said she was first grabbed by the story of Henrietta Lacks when she was in a high school biology class.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, read from her book and took questions from an audience that nearly filled Fountain Street Church March 28.

Skloot said a biology teacher first discussed Lacks' immortal cells and told the class if they wanted to find out more, they could look it up. Skloot did that, just more than two decades later.

"I also had a second teacher in college that said, 'You know you can write. There is such a thing as a science writer,'" she said. "So I followed my curiosity and passion. And now I often write that when I sign books for students."

It took Skloot more than 10 years to write the story of Lacks and her cells. She said winning trust of the Lacks family was difficult and took nearly two years.

Skloot is also the founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation and a portion of book sales go to support the foundation that has given tuition grants to Lacks' descendents.

She said the Lacks family still struggles financially but "they are proud of these cells and feel that Henrietta is an angel for doing so much for medical research."

Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who underwent a medical procedure in the early 1950s and unknowingly had her cells taken. Her cells, known as HeLa, continue to grow in culture today; they are an important medical tool that led to advances in cloning, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. Lacks' cells have been sold for millions, yet her family did not know of the research or the money involved until 20 years after Lacks' death.

Grand Valley's Community Reading Project, now in its sixth year, is sponsored by the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, University Libraries and University Bookstores.