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Author Rebecca Skloot kicks off 'Decoding Science' symposium

Monday, March 10, 2014 | 11:12 p.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," speaks at Jesse Auditorium on Monday. Her book, which took more than a decade write and research, was a New York Times best seller.

COLUMBIA — Scientists' idea of communication and the public's idea of communication don't always match up — and in one case, Rebecca Skloot told a nearly full house Monday at Jesse Auditorium, that led a man to believe his dead wife was alive and in prison.

Skloot was the first speaker of seven slated for the week-long Life Sciences and Society Symposium, "Decoding Science." The symposium addresses the communication gap between the science community and the rest of the public — and Skloot, a science writer who often bridges that gap herself, said all it takes is curiosity and some easy-to-understand language.

Symposium Schedule

JAMES SUROWIECKI, 7 p.m. Thursday, Cornell Hall

BILL NYE, 10 a.m. Saturday, Jesse Auditorium (Event is full; overflow seating available.)

CHRIS MOONEY, DOMINIQUE BROSSARD, LIZ NEELEY, BARBARA KLINE POPE and RANDY OLSON, 12:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jesse Auditorium

More information available here.


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Skloot wrote "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a New York Times bestseller and Columbia's One Read book in 2011. It's a non-fiction account of the tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 to became the first immortal cell line, HeLa.

Scientists used Lacks' cells to produce polio and HPV vaccines, and they were the first human cells to be cloned.

In the 1970s, scientists decided to track down Lacks' family to see if they had the same immortal cells, Skloot said. "At that moment there was a communication breakdown."

The Lacks family could not read or write, and the children went through school without anyone realizing they were deaf.

Lacks' husband, who only had a third-grade education, could not understand the scientist who told him his wife's cells were still alive and growing in labs. He thought they had her in a prison cell, Skloot said.

These scientists couldn't understand that the family had never heard of a cell, she said.

"Scientists didn't see any reason to explain anything to the Lacks family," she said.

Skloot said it is an exciting time for science communication. The internet and social media are helping scientists and the public mingle in an easily accessible way. 

"Science is about those moments that make you say 'what?'" Skloot said."Those questions can open up a whole other world."

Supervising editor is Adam Aton.


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