Rebecca Skloot and the challenge of science communication


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By Caleb O’Brien

COLUMBIA, Mo — When Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951, she didn’t know doctors took a small sample from her tumor. She didn’t know they would keep the tissue alive and growing in culture. She didn’t know those cells from her body would outlive her and give rise to the first immortal human cell line, that they would enable medical breakthroughs and discoveries and create entire industries.

Lacks’s story can serve as a case study on the importance of communication in the sciences and illuminates the inextricable link between social and scientific issues. Speaking to a packed auditorium in MU’s Jesse Hall on Monday, Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” wove a personal and historical tale of the challenges and consequences of communicating sciences.

Skloot spent more than a decade writing and researching “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and the book is at once an authoritative retelling of the Lacks saga and a nuanced examination of Skloot’s relationship with the Lacks family. The story of Henrietta Lacks is a story about a grave failure of communication and how the repercussions of such failures can span generations.

Skloot’s talk was part of the 10th annual MU Life Sciences & Society Symposium, and after telling the story of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot shared communication advice for scientists and tips for writers.

She suggested that that scientists take every opportunity to practice talking about their work in easily understood language, whether it be in a bar or at a party. When the person being spoken to begins glazing over from incomprehension, stop and start over, Skloot said.

Skloot also suggested both writers and scientists learn how to notice when they’re curious about something. She calls those fleeting feelings of wonder “what moments,” as in, “Wait, what did you just say?” Such moments have sparked almost all of her work as a science reporter. Those small, niggling feelings of curiosity can be easily overlooked during a lecture or conversation, but they can lead to insight and discovery.

In fact, Skloot’s interest in the tale of Henrietta Lacks began with a “what moment” when she was 16 and taking biology. One day her teacher mentioned Lacks and the famous cell line derived from her body. The story ignited Skloot’s long-simmering fascination with Lacks and ultimately led her to write “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

That anecdote prompted Skloot to share a word of encouragement for the educators in the audience: Keep teaching because “you never know what once sentence you say is going to land on someone.”


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