Emphasizing her unconventional background in veterinary science, award-winning writer Rebecca Skloot, told hundreds of Northwestern community members Thursday how experiences in her early life shaped her career and inspired her to write her debut novel.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was chosen as this year’s selection for the campus’ community-wide reading initiative, One Book One Northwestern. The program aims to engage the community in conversation centered on a “thought-provoking book.
Beginning in the 1930s, the novel profiles the life of Henrietta Lacks– a black woman from the South– her family and how she unknowingly made one of the most important contributions in medicine when doctors took her cervical tumor cells without her consent.
Skloot was 16 years old when she first learned about Lacks and her HeLa cells in her biology class. Her teacher told the class how HeLa cells were key in finding vaccines for HPV, Polio and a number of other monumental medical discoveries.
After that lecture, “I became sort of obsessed with her,” Skloot said. And for the next two decades Skloot gradually uncovered the mystery behind the woman with immortal cells.
“Most successful people take rough and imperfect paths to reach success,” Skloot said, setting the theme for her lecture, which seemed to highlight the importance of enjoying the ride.
During her talk Skloot’s discussion shifted between influential events of her high school and college days and how they shaped her life and lead her to write the book.
In college, Skloot chose to study veterinary medicine because of her love for animals and science. She, like many pre-veterinary students, chose to put off her liberal arts requirements until her final years of college and because of this she ended up in a creative writing course, which helped her to recognize her love of writing.
Ultimately, she ended up trading a career in veterinary medicine for one in science writing, when she realized she could contribute to the progress of science by writing about it.
Throughout her talk Skloot stressed that everything from hearing about Henrietta Lacks’ famous “HeLa” cells in her first biology course, to studying veterinary science and her fateful decision to take a creative writing class shaped her career in science writing gave her a new appreciation for the privilege and education she had received.
“Letting go of a goal, doesn’t mean you failed as long as you have a new goal in its place. It’s not giving up, its just changing directions, which is one of the most important things you can do in your life, ” she said.
Skloot ended her lecture with a few final thoughts; she told students that self-promotion and discovering passion are equally important and key to success.
“Honing your ability to recognize your goals and follow it is one of the most important things you can do,” she said.