UCSB Reads Chooses Skloot for 2011 

Science Journalist Rebecca Skloot Makes Her Mark in Santa Barbara 

UCSB Reads has kicked off for 2011 with Rebecca Skloot’sThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Amazon’s number one book for 2010.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is at once a story of a woman, whose cells are taken without her consent or knowledge, and the struggle of her descendants to understand Lacks’s death and the immortality of her cells.

During the 1930s, a poor young black woman named Henrietta Lacks developed a serious case of cervical cancer. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, a scraping of cells from her tumor was taken without her permission and given to a researcher.

Lacks’s cancer cells ended up being a very valuable find, both scientifically and financially. They could reproduce swiftly and were functionally immortal. They could be frozen and shipped to other labs for research all across the world, and vials could be sold for hundreds of dollars under the name “HeLa.” The Lacks family, unaware that Henrietta’s cells had even been taken until 20 years after the fact, received none of this money.

Rebecca Skloot, a science journalist, undertook the difficult task of earning the family’s trust and finally telling Lacks’s story to the world, earning her the recognition she truly deserves.

UCSB Reads is currently is in its fifth year, according to library administrator Brian Mathews. The program started when UCSB put on a large Earth Day celebration, and the library participated by giving out an environmentally related book.

What makes UCSB’s program unique is that the library itself coordinates it; at other schools, admissions or student affairs put on most programs of a similar bent. In addition, while many universities may have reading programs, they limit them to freshmen. UCSB’s program is open to students of all class levels. “Freshmen classes aren’t as specialized … [This is] more inclusive to everybody,” Mathews said. Several upper division classes in different UCSB departments are discussing the book.

UCSB also has roots out in the community. The Santa Barbara Library typically partners with UCSB, putting about 100 copies of the book into circulation. UCSB faculty will then give talks at the library, similar to those given at UCSB. The library runs another reading program in the fall, unrelated to UCSB Reads.

Other universities also have college reading programs, though the universities tend to be smaller, private universities that don’t have such vast student bodies. About 40 universities nationwide chose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as their book to read this year.

The book has proven a fortuitous choice. While the popularity of the program varies from year to year depending on the book, this year saw close to 400 people line up to collect the book just on the first day—a Wednesday afternoon, not a typically busy release date. Word of mouth has also been positive, with both faculty members and students buzzing about the book.

KCSB, UCSB’s radio station, will read a section of the book every weekday at noon from February 16 through April 11, 2011, when Skloot will appear on campus and give a talk about her book in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Community discussions will also feature the book prominently throughout the month of April. For more information, go here.


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