Best-selling science author shares story of success with students

Cori Kromrei | Staff Photographer Science writer and award-winning author Rebecca Skloot spoke about her book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"​ Monday night in Plachta Auditorium.

Rebecca Skloot was once expelled from preschool for refusing to take naps and had a 0.5 grade point average during her freshman year of high school. She's now the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta, a New York Times best-seller for more than four years.

Skloot spoke at the Plachta Auditorium on Monday about her experiences as a best-selling author. Skloot ended up attending an alternative high school, where she decided to take an advanced medical biology class to achieve her dream of becoming a veterinarian.

Skloot has been featured on numerous television shows and "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was chosen as best book 2010 by more than 60 medial outlets and is currently being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah. It's also required reading for most science classes.

It was during one of her classes that her teacher wrote the name Henrietta Lacks, a women whose immortal cells known as HeLa were taken without her knowledge in 1951. She approached the teacher after class to learn more about the woman, but the teacher claimed no further knowledge of the woman and told her to write a paper on her for extra credit.

Her interest in writing erupted when she began taking elective writing courses, where she wrote a story about dozens of dogs a week being brought into the morgue and killed where she was training to be a veterinarian, sparking a heated debate between the classmates about where to draw the line on the importance of science.

"I watched this in the room and thought 'Writing is kind of cool'," Skloot said.

She became an avid writer after that experience while continuing to work toward becoming a veterinarian. Eventually, one of her teachers from a writing class set a stack of writing catalogues on her desk and reminded her that she doesn't have to become a veterinarian.

"He said 'Letting go of a goal doesn't mean you failed, as long as you have a new one in it's place. It's not giving up, it's just changing direction, which can be one of the most important things you do in your life'," Skloot said.

It was during her senior year of college that Skloot decided to change her goal from being a veterinarian to becoming a writer. Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took over a decade to research and write. She conducted her research with Lacks' daughter, Deborah, who Skloot admitted was a "hurdle" to work with. After taking a year and a half to contact, Deborah would both physically and mentally push Skloot away and ask “who sent her."

Despite the frustration, Skloot said that along with her resistance, Deborah was still her greatest inspiration because Skloot “never met anyone who wanted to learn as badly as her.”

Once she finished the book, she sent the transcript to 12 of the family members to fact-check and also sent the transcript to her old teacher with the message "here's my extra credit paper."

Grand Ledge senior Colleen Burkhardt left the auditorium feeling inspired. 

“I loved it. I think she was an amazing speaker who related to a wide range of people,” Burkhardt said. “It’s crazy the impact you can make on so many people.”