Common Experience

An annual program designed to cultivate a common intellectual conversation across campus, to strengthen the sense of community at Southeast and in the region, to encourage open discussion, civil discourse, and critical thinking, and to enhance the reputation of Southeast as a regional center of learning excellence.

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The common reading for the 2013-14 Indiana University Southeast Common Experience is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The book has been used by many universities and colleges in their first year reading programs. Here is a brief discussion of the book:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book CoverHer name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, they were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances in cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions, with devastating consequences for her family. Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta’s children, unable to afford health insurance, wrestle with feelings of pride, fear, and betrayal.

The book is the recipient of the following awards:

  • Winner of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine’s 2011 Communication Award for Best Book
  • Winner of the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction
  • Winner of the 2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize
  • Named by more than 60 critics as one of the best books of 2010, including:
    • O, The Oprah Magazine
    • Publishers Weekly
    • Library Journal
    • Bookmarks Magazine
    • Kirkus Reviews
    • Booklist
    • Entertainment Weekly
    • East Bay Express
    • Kansas City Star
    • A Discover Magazine 2010 Must Read
    • National Public Radio
    • Best of the Bestsellers

Praise for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks...

“Thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s remarkable book, the Lacks case is likely to become a classic in the history of biomedical ethics. . . Skloot is a science journalist but this book also evidences her skill as a historian . . . provides a profound sense of history. Students in classes covering ethics, public health, and the history of medicine, childhood, the family, women, the 1950s, and race will be engrossed by Lacks’s story. The many questions raised by the existence and use of HeLa cells will generate hours of classroom discussion.”
—Journal of the History of Medicine

"What is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks really about? Science, African American culture and religion, intellectual property of human tissues, Southern history, medical ethics, civil rights, the overselling of medical advances? . . . The book’s broad scope would make it ideal for an institution-wide freshman year reading program.
" —David J. Kroll, Professor and Chair, Pharmaceutical Sciences, North Carolina Central University

"An incredibly readable and smart text that should be a part of countless university discussions . . . Ethically fascinating and completely engaging–I couldn’t recommend it more."
—Deborah Blum, Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"A stunning illustration of how race, gender and disease intersect to produce a unique form of social vulnerability, this is a poignant, necessary and brilliant book."
—Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

"An essential component of biomedical research, Skloot finally gives the HeLa cell line its human face. HeLa grew from a tissue sample taken from a highly aggressive cancerous tumor on the cervix of 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks, a young, African-American mother, the child of tobacco farmers, and the granddaughter of slaves, who died a painful death in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She never gave permission for the sample to be taken; in turn, her cells have reproduced geometrically and scientists estimate that over 50 million metric tons of cells—as much as one hundred Empire State Buildings—have been grown since 1951. Skloot (a regular contributor to Popular Science) offers a detailed and dramatic medical detective story, effectively balancing careful, scientific reporting with intense and respectful interactions with Lacks’s extended family. The brutal irony of Lacks’s life is that though her early death did not allow her to mother her own children, her cells and the medical miracles they engendered (polio vaccines, DNA research, and more) effectively mothered us all."
—School Library Journal

Schedule of Events


Research Ethics for Faculty and Students

Tue., September 3, 2013 
University Center 127, 12:20 p.m. - 1:10 p.m.

Drone Warfare: Legal, Ethical, and Strategic Issues

Thu., September 19, 2013 
3rd floor of the IU Southeast Library, 7:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.

How to Survive a Plague

Tue., September 24, 2013 
University Center 127, 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

The Science of HeLa Cells for Beginners

Mon., September 30, 2013 
3rd floor of the IU Southeast Library, 12:20 p.m. - 1:10 p.m.


The Tinker Tour: Mary Beth Tinker and Free Speech in Public Schools

Wed., October 9, 2013 
Stem Concert Hall, 7:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

Poverty Simulation

Wed., October 23, 2013 
Hoosier Room, 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.


Enron, White-Collar Crime, and Ethics

Wed., November 6, 2013 
University Center 127, 7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.

Discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Tue., November 19, 2013 
3rd Floor of the IU Southeast Library, 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.



Sportsmanship vs. Gamesmanship

Tue., January 28, 2014 
3rd floor of the IU Southeast Library, 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.


The Science of HeLa Cells for Beginners

Mon., February 10, 2014 
3rd floor of the IU Southeast Library, 12:20 p.m. - 1:10 p.m.

Miss Evers’ Boys

Mon., February 24, 2014 
University Center 127, 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.


YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip

Thu., March 13, 2014 
3rd Floor of the IU Southeast Library, 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Religious Discussion Forum

Fri., March 14, 2014 
University Center 127, 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.


The Media and Environmental Concerns

Wed., April 2, 2014 
3rd floor of the IU Southeast Library, 7:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

Discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Mon., April 14, 2014 
3rd floor of the IU Southeast Library, 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.