CSUSM, in partnership with five other area universities, invites students and the community to open up the pages of author Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction best seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in an unprecedented countywide Common Read to explore the intersections of science, ethics, medicine, race and human rights.

Common Read programs have become increasingly popular nationwide, engaging entire college campuses and communities in reading and discussing one book and its prevailing themes. Spearheaded by the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, CSUSM joins SDSU, UCSD, USD, Point Loma Nazarene, Grossmont College and even some area high schools in the county’s first collective Common Read project.

During the yearlong inaugural series, each campus will offer a variety of expert lectures, exhibits, film screenings, theatrical performances and other events designed to foster intellectual engagement and meaningful dialogue.

To augment campus programming, a monthly guest lecture series, titled “Exploring Ethics” and hosted at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, will examine science from an ethical viewpoint. On November 2, the museum will welcome renowned author Rebecca Skloot to discuss her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which took more than a decade to research and write, and is the platform for this year’s Common Read. On Feb. 1, CSUSM's Dean of College of Science and Math, Dr. Katherine Kantardjieff, will led the ethics discussion with her talk on “The Conduct of Science in the Information Age.”

Skloot’s best-selling book chronicles the true story of how cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks were used, without her knowledge or consent, to produce a human cell line for research. Her cells became the first “immortal” human cells ever grown in culture. Termed HeLa cells, they were so resilient and bountiful that her cell line is still being used and reproduced for medical research 60 years after her death at the age of 31. Her cells became instrumental in developing the polio vaccine and uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb. Since 1951, HeLa cells have been bought and sold by the billions. Today more than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells exist in laboratories around the world, all of which derived from Henrietta Lacks’ original tissue sample.

In the book, Skloot writes, “I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.”

Knowing the incredible benefits that HeLa cells have brought to the field of medicine and mankind, Skloot brings to light important and challenging questions on the ethics surrounding the use and production of cells taken without the permission of Lacks or her impoverished family, who did not discover their controversial use until 20 years after Henrietta’s death. Transcending the world of science, the book questions: who is permitted to profit from parts of our body? At what point does a patient forfeit ownership of samples taken from their body? How does a family, rooted deeply in their faith, cope with the reality that part of Henrietta is still living? Knowing that the HeLa cells have generated billions of dollars in sales, should her family, which can’t even afford the very healthcare Henrietta’s cells helped to shape, be compensated?

These questions have become the foundation for discussion with this year’s Common Read, which will continue through April. Coordinated on campus by the Library with support from Academic Affairs, several general education classes at CSUSM have already begun reading and discussing the text as part of their required coursework. Student centers, including ASI’s Women’s Center and the Tukwut Leadership Circle and the Staff Appreciation and Development Committee are also joining the project and organizing book discussions for interested readers. The School of Nursing is organizing a panel of health practitioners and experts on medical ethics, and Student Life and Leadership is co-sponsoring outdoor film screenings.

Among the planned activities for the Common Read is a student essay contest. Each university will host its own 1500-word essay competition with the first-place essay from each campus advancing to the regional level. Finalist essays will be judged by a multi-institutional panel and the top three writers will receive cash prizes.

“The Common Read takes an interactive and interdisciplinary approach to engage all readers in exploring issues related to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” said Melanie Chu, outreach librarian at Cal State San Marcos. “The result is a countywide conversation on critical topics like biotechnology, informed consent, and clinical trials to faith, immortality, race and social justice.”

To learn more about upcoming events hosted on and off campus, visit CSUSM’s Common Read website. Paperback copies of the book are available at the Kellogg Library for a seven-day checkout.

During the yearlong inaugural series, each campus will offer a variety of expert lectures, exhibits, film screenings, theatrical performances and other events designed to foster intellectual engagement and meaningful dialogue.