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‘In/Common’ Series Looks at Henrietta Lacks

‘In/Common’ Series Looks at Henrietta Lacks


Several events continue SUNY Cortland’s yearlong quest to answer questions about a common humanity — especially the issues that divide it — by considering a non-fiction book concerned with race and medical ethics.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the 2010 book by Rebecca Skloot, provides the spring semester’s reading inspiration for the year’s “In/Common” series, the eighth of its kind organized by the College’s Cultural and Intellectual Climate Committee (CICC).

Like The Kite Runner, the fall semester’s featured book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks looks at the shared nature of human connections amid cultural and socio-economic differences. It tells the story of a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, have proven vital in gene mapping, cloning and the development of vaccines, generating millions of dollars never seen by Lacks or her family.

All of the activities related to the book and the “In/Common” Series are free and open to the public.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an inclusive book that we felt could be read in a variety of disciplines and across the (three) schools on campus,” said Lorraine Berry, the project director for the student Web magazine NeoVox who is coordinating CICC events this semester. “The book is as relevant to a biology class as it is to students in the School of Education. Both may wonder why Henrietta Lacks’ story is ignored in high school biology classes, where so many questions about the human body were answered by using cells taken from Lacks.

“My class read it during the fall semester and the range of our discussions of the book showed critical intellectual engagement with difficult — yet accessible — arguments."

The semester’s events kick off at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, in Brockway Hall Jacobus Lounge with a roundtable discussion that takes on the book from biological, philosophical and public health perspectives. Moderated by Jena Curtis, an assistant professor of health, the discussion panel includes the following SUNY Cortland faculty members: Theresa Curtis, an assistant professor of biological sciences; Jill Murphy, an associate professor of health; and Elyse Purcell, a lecturer of philosophy.

This semester’s other “In/Common” events built around The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks include:

• A book discussion scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Brockway Hall Jacobus Lounge for students who have read the book or those who are reading the book in their classes. College faculty members are currently teaching the book across many academic departments, including English, geography, history and psychology.

• A film screening of the BBC production The Way of All Flesh begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, at the Dowd Gallery, located temporarily on the third floor at Main Street SUNY Cortland, 9 Main St. Andrew Fitz-Gibbon, an associate professor of philosophy, will introduce the documentary, which looks at the story of Henrietta Lacks.

• Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that opposes forms of discrimination against old, ill and disabled people such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, is scheduled to offer a 5 p.m. presentation Tuesday, March 26, in Brockway Hall Jacobus Lounge. The talk will consider medical ethics and end-of-life decisions.

• A panel made up of SUNY Cortland students will present on Henrietta Lacks during the Multicultural Life and Diversity Conference, slated for Sunday, April 14.

• That same group of students will present at Transformations, the College’s annual celebration of student scholarship, on Friday, April 19.

Two more Henrietta Lacks themed events scheduled for Women’s History Month in March are still in the works. They include a discussion of the women’s rights issues posed in the book and a talk by Sandra Lane, a professor of public health at Syracuse University, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 19. A location for that talk is still to be determined.

The “In/Common” series is funded by the offices of the President and the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. The College’s Black History Month, Women’s History Month and NeoVox also help underwrite expenses for different events.

To stay current with announcements regarding the series’ events, visit the committee’s Facebook page. For more information, contact Berry at 607-279-0271.