As we have done since 2013, members of the IU Northwest community will engage with a common campus reading during the 2016-17 academic year. As the One Book…One Campus…One Community website explains, the “program is intended to build an intellectual and social rapport among students, staff, faculty and community members through the collective experience of reading, thinking about, and discussing challenging ideas and themes that raise important social issues, especially those surrounding issues of diversity”. A shared learning experience like this creates awareness of questions of social justice and inclusion, as well as promoting collaboration, across our campus and with the larger community. And, once again, the One Book Committee, with the participation of campus colleagues, have made an engaging and provocative selection.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is, on its own, a compelling story, based on years of research and interviews, that provides insights into interrelated topics that will prompt discussion and reflection on a university campus. The story begins with the cancer death of a young African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, and it tells us a lot about the character and practice of scientific research and discovery in the mid-Twentieth Century, which will seem extraordinarily informal to early-Twentieth-First-Century readers. But Henrietta’s cell lines have proved to be among the most important in medical research during the 65 years since her death.
The medical advances and benefits have been significant, but it all occurred, largely, without the knowledge or “informed consent” of Henrietta and her family, which, for me, makes ethical perspective, in the practice of both medical research and health care delivery, the book’s strongest theme. A process that might appear almost quaint in 1951 also betrays legacies of indifference, inequity and exploitation in American health care. But Henrietta’s experience and the “immortal life” of her cell lines have contributed to a much more structured and regulated environment for those who may find themselves participating in research.
At IU Northwest, along with our partners in the IU School of Medicine-Northwest-Gary, there are multiple academic and research strengths in the health care professions and the life sciences, all of which reside within Indiana University’s arts and sciences context that embraces a commitment to ethical perspective. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will be of cross-disciplinary interest on our campus.
Wednesday, 19 October 2016, for example, is UNESCO World Bioethics Day, which will be observed at IU Northwest by an all-day conference on “Bioethics and Vulnerable Populations”, an important topic for students and faculty in the health professions and life sciences that ties in directly with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I encourage students and colleagues to participate in our World Bioethics Day conference and the other campus One Book activities that are listed on the One Book…One Campus…One Community website.
And finally, a major priority of the IU Northwest One Book program is to engage our students in reading and discussing important works with other members of the campus and Northwest Indiana community. The potential for One Book to become more central to our redoubled attention to the initial academic experiences of our First-Year students is very promising and the website features Student Champions and ways for students to participate.
Members of the IU Northwest campus community will find plenty of substance for discussion and reflection in the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.