Curiosity didn’t kill this cat


Rebecca Skloot’s journey toward writing “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” began in the same place my journey toward reading it started out: biology class. Her professor was talking about the HeLa cell line. He mentioned that the cells came from the tissue of a woman named Henrietta Lacks, adding that she was black. When Skloot asked her professor whether he knew more about Lacks, he said no, but suggested she research it herself and write a paper on her findings for extra credit. Skloot never turned in the paper. Ten years later, she sent him a book instead.

Thanks to that book, when I learned about HeLa cells in biology class at Calvin. My professor did know about Henrietta Lacks. Still, like Skloot, I left biology class wishing I knew more about Henrietta. Thus, I read Skloot’s book. The book told Henrietta Lacks’ story, but it also followed the journey of HeLa cells in the science community, Henrietta’s family’s journey and even Skloot’s own story as her life intertwined with the lives of the Lacks family. The book did all this in beautiful, engaging prose. I was ecstatic to hear that Rebecca Skloot was going to speak at the January Series.

Because Skloot was aiming to speak to audiences with varying levels of knowledge about Skloot’s work, there were times when her speech covered things I already knew, but overall, she did a great job of juggling the expectations of a diverse audience.  She was able to do this by mixing discussion of the book with her own story and commonly asked questions about the book. She tied the diverse topics together with a few pieces of advice to her audience. Her advice taken out of context would probably seem unremarkable, but she made it new through the added meaning of her personal story.

First, she advised us to discover our passions. However, the place she suggested looking for them was unexpected: childhood. Skloot hypothesized that our passions are mostly formed under the age of 18.

This theory held true for Skloot. She was 16 when she first heard about Henrietta Lacks in biology class. She was also 16 when her father caught a virus, which resulted in brain damage. She often drove her father to the hospital for experimental medical treatments, an experience which both sparked an interest in medical research and helped her to understand the emotions of those in Henrietta Lacks’ family, especially when building a relationship of trust with her daughter, Deborah.

I can’t speak for all of you, nor can I speak with many years of experience because I’m only 19. However, I can already see my childhood interests shaping my path as a college student. When I was little, I wanted to be a movie star when I grew up, so I came up with hundreds of screenplays for movies in which I would play the starring role. I’ve since abandoned my plans for an acting career. It turns out I liked telling stories better than acting them out. However, writing all those screenplays helped me to discover that passion. Obviously, we all want to discover our passions, but sometimes I think we look too hard and too far away. Childhood interests don’t have to stay in childhood. They can even evolve into lifelong passions.

Skloot’s second piece of advice: follow your curiosity. Skloot didn’t know why she was drawn to Henrietta Lacks, but she was. She decided to pursue the object of her curiosity. The result was the exposition of injustice in the science community, recognition for a woman forgotten by history and the family she left behind. This wasn’t the only fruitful “what” moment for Skloot. She also related a story of a trip to the vet’s office with her dog. She was surprised to learn that the doctor’s previous patient had been a goldfish undergoing surgery. The curiosity she felt lead her to seek more information, ultimately leading to her publishing a whole article about surgery on goldfish.

Many a librarian might beg to differ, but I think Wikipedia is one of the best things about the Internet. Whenever a professor mentions something in class that I want to know more about, I look it up on Wikipedia. Most of the time, however, that’s the end of it. The Internet has made it wonderfully easy to access information, but it doesn’t tell us everything, nor does it promise breadth and accuracy. Skloot’s research on Henrietta Lacks is evidence of that.

Leaving a curious discovery once you’ve read a related Wikipedia page might seem like the responsible thing to do when you’re loaded with homework, but it also ensures that the curiosity you felt will never amount to anything more. It ensures that you will never know what the Wikipedia page missed, or maybe even got wrong. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance it means you will forget about it altogether. Skloot showed that sometimes the little things that spark our interest can lead us to big discoveries — discoveries that might even be worth procrastinating on that paper you really need to write for a while.

Finally, Skloot offered teachers a little advice, courtesy of the biology professor who first told her about Henrietta Lacks. When he received the book in the mail, he wrote back:

“You never know what one sentence you say is going to stick with somebody.”

I believe that this advice holds true for not just teachers, but for anyone who has a voice and the mind to use it. Deborah Lacks, for example, longed for her mother to be a part of the history books, not just her cells. Rebecca Skloot followed her curiosity to Deborah. The things Deborah had to say stuck with Skloot. Now Deborah’s story is preserved in print, alongside her mother’s story.