Common Book Project hosts film screening

Common Book Project hosts film screening

Brynn Artley, Features Reporter

Winona State University students, professors and community members seated themselves in the Harriet Johnson Auditorium for the screening of the HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

The screening was part of the Winona State Common Book Project, which centered on this year’s selection, a non-fiction book of the same name, written by Rebecca Skloot.

Since 2005, the Common Book Project has featured a different book each year as a university-wide challenge to “create a community around that book, a community of readers,” English professor and project coordinator Ann-Marie Dunbar said.

The selected book is usually non-fiction, though some years the project selection committee does choose a novel.

“What we’re trying to do is choose something that has interest in a wide range of disciplines,” Dunbar said. “The book becomes truly common when we get a wide variety of people to adopt it, but we are always looking for something that will teach well in English 111 classrooms because that’s where our biggest audience is.”

This year’s selection examines the story of Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950’s whose cancer cells were sampled by doctors without her knowledge. After Lacks died, her cancer cells continued to replicate and live on, making them the first immortal human cell line.

Researchers are still using the cells today and they have been integral in major medical breakthroughs, such as the polio vaccine, gene mapping, cloning, in-vitro fertilization and chemotherapy. 

However, until Rebecca Skloot began investigating the story, no one knew who Henrietta Lacks was or her family’s perspective on the matter.

“Something that this book really does is bring in the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family,” English professor Gretchen Michlitsch said. “Part of it is very scientific, rendered very readable in my opinion, but the story of Henrietta Lack’s family is part of what hasn’t been told before.”

Michlitsch incorporated the book into her English 111 class this semester as part of her “Individual and Society” theme. Instructors of English 111 and other courses are encouraged, but not required, to adopt the work into their curriculums.

“The questions that I’m taking to my class today, in part, are designed to challenge them to consider the rights of the individual—in this case, Henrietta Lacks and her family—in comparison to the way that her cells have been used in research that has enabled much progress in medical treatment,” Michlitsch said. 

While the book provides many talking points for class, it also is a good example for students learning research methods, Michlitsch said.

“This book has been nominated every year that I have been directing this program,” Dunbar said. “It’s a great book. It brings together so many interesting questions about bioethics and race and class and research—questions that are at the heart of things we do here on campus.”

According to Dunbar, the committee never chose the book before this year because having the author come speak on campus was a requirement for selection. The expense and limited availability of Rebecca Skloot made this relatively impossible.

This year, however, the committee decided to change the requirement. While Rebecca Skloot will not be speaking at Winona State, several other events will be taking place.

The film screening on last Tuesday was the first of these events. The HBO film reenacted the story of Rebecca Skloot’s search for Henrietta Lacks and her family and it starred Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, daughter of Henrietta.

“Being able to see it on the screen gives you a different perspective of how the story plays out,” first-year Garrett Corcoran said. “It’s kind of emotional. If you’re trying to laugh, I wouldn’t watch it, but I thought it was a really good movie.”

Dunbar said the events are designed to enrich the experience of those who read the book and there will be more events in the spring.

“We try to make sure we have good events to support those students who are reading the book in both semesters,” Dunbar said.

As part of the series, Carl Elliott, a professor of bioethics and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, gave a speech titled “The Lonesome Whistle: Why Do So Many Doctors and Nurses Remain Silent in the Face of Unethical Research?” in the Harriet Johnson Auditorium this past Monday, Oct. 9.

The next event in the series will be a panel discussion featuring members of the Winona State faculty on Thursday, Oct. 12 at 2:30 p.m. in the Haake Hall Conference Room. The discussion is titled “Lessons from HeLa: Research Ethics and the University.”