ISEM 301 Great Issues

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


1 credit  P/F         Spring Semester 2013

 For more information contact:  Rodney Frey  885-6268

Printable PDF syllabus


Including FREE - Open to the public Address by David Jr. "Sonny" Lacks - January 22 7:00 pm SUB Ballroom


Henrietta Lacks (circa 1945-51)
Born: August 1, 1920
Died: October 4, 1951 (age 31)

Instructors/Presenters:   Larry Forney (Director of the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies; Professor of Biology), Rodney Frey (Director of General Education; Professor of Ethnography), Heather Gasser (Director of the Women’s Center), Rochelle Smith (Reference Librarian), David “Sonny” Lacks (son of Henrietta) and Gary Williams (Chair of the Department of English; Professor of English).  All participants are confirmed.   Five-seven graduate teaching assistants will also be involved, given enrollment in this ISEM 301.


Seminar Description:   This seminar is being linked to the University’s Common Read, with accompanying lectures by the son of Henrietta Lacks and other scholars.  The seminar will explore the life story and legacy of Henrietta Lacks.  It is the story of a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, scientifically known as HeLa, were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge in 1951, while undergoing cancer treatment.  These cells have become one of the most important tools in modern medicine.   Henrietta Lacks’ story intersects medical and scientific research-- including development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, with biomedical ethics, doctor-patient relations and a patient’s right to informed consent--with racial and gender prejudice and economic disparity, with access to quality health care, and with a journalist’s own professional and personal quests of discovery and growth as a human being as a journalist engages with and relates to her informants – the descendents of Henrietta Lacks.  It is the story of humanizing what was dehumanized, of putting a human story on HeLa cells.   The seminar will bring together a variety of themes that will allow students to gain a deeper appreciation of the interconnections of today’s social and economic diversity, scientific and medical research, and associated ethical issues.


HeLa cells stained with Hoechist 33258

Seminar Themes:  to be framed in the context of the implications of the story of Henrietta Lack.  They include among other themes:

Medical and scientific research;

Medical and scientific bioethics and informed consent;

Race, class and gender; Poverty;

Civility and citizenship;

Applying a multidisciplinary approach, e.g., humanities, natural science and social science, to address a current issue, e.g., conducting ethical research, or understanding and communicating scientific (STEM) knowledge and education.

Understanding the self and one’s discipline in a diverse social context


Learning Activities:     Each of the four learning activities is linked to the seminar themes and learning objectives, as well as to the University Learning Outcomes.   Link to Seminar Learning Outcomes


A.      Text Reading:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Broadway Paperbacks: New York, 2010.  (In the UI Bookstore)


B.      Attendance and Participation in Workshops:   Attendance required at all sessions, with participation in the last two sessions.   All eight sessions Tuesday evenings, 7:00 to 9:00.   


1.      January 15 at 7:00 pm. Renfrew 111 Led by Rodney Frey, Professor of Ethnography, this session will provide an overview of the seminar, meet graduate teaching assistants and assign discussion seminar groups (of 30 students each).  The seminar will break-off into small seminar groups and go to separate rooms to review syllabus, learning objectives and activities (seminar participating, discussion and reflective paper requirements), the grading criteria, and study guide questions with the graduate assistant.  Students will familiarize themselves with their seminar group and graduate assistant.  

Seminar Locations at 8:00 pm: TLC 147, TLC 148, TLC 149, TLC 222

2.      January 22 at 7:00 pm Ballroom of SUB.   Keynote Address by David Jr. “Sonny” Lacks, son of Henrietta Lacks  Talk is FREE and OPEN to the PUBLIC

3.      January 29 at 7:00 pm.  Renfrew 111  Presenter: Gary Williams, Professor of English – a humanities approach 

4.      February 5 at 7:00 pm. Renfrew 111  Presenter: Larry Forney, Professor of Biology – a scientific approach and bioethical issues

5.      February 12 at 7:00 pm. Renfrew 111  Presenter: Heather Gasser, Director of the Women's Center – social science approach and gender and social issues

6.      February 19 at 7:00 pm. Renfrew 111 Presenter: Rochelle Smith, Reference Librarian – open topic and exploring the library and further research opportunities

7.      February 26 at 7:00 pm.  Seminar Locations: TLC 147, TLC 148, TLC 149, TLC 222   Led by graduate teaching assistants, meet in seminar groups to discuss and reflect on the speakers and reading (in context of UI Learning Outcomes and specific ISEM themes, using study guide questions)  

8.      March 5 at 7:00 pm. Seminar Locations: TLC 147, TLC 148, TLC 149, TLC 222   Led by graduate teaching assistants, meet in seminar groups to discuss/present each student’s reflective paper.


C.      Seminar Participation.  Each student, in small seminar groups, will have an opportunity to orally articulate and discuss one or more of the seminar themes.  The themes will be reframed and presented as a current ethical, scientific, social, or medical dilemma or challenge that needs resolution.   The discussion will seek to have each student demonstrate his or her ability to: 1. Convey an understanding of the seminar themes addressed; 2. Distinguish and integrate differing and multiple academic disciplines and/or approaches (as presented by speakers), along with the student’s own academic discipline.  3. Apply that integrated disciplinary approach to address the dilemmas or challenges posed in the seminar; 4. Identify and reflection on how “the self” is articulated and relates to the larger social context; 5. Effectiveness in oral communications.


D.     Reflection paper.   Length: Minimum of 10 pages (double-spaced in proper MLA or APA style).   The student is to select one of the seminar themes and effectively explore its implications and possible resolutions from an integrated yet multiple-disciplinary approach.   The student is to demonstrate: 1. An understanding of a key themes as presented in the textbook and by the presenters; 2. An ability to distinguish and understanding multiple academic disciplines, including his or her own; 3. An ability to integrate a multiple disciplines (distinct from and including the student’s own) in an appreciation of a current issue; 4. An ability to clarify his or her own self in relation to one of the current issues/themes;  5. And ability to effectively communicate through writing, using and properly referencing at least three library resources (print or digital). 


Link to Seminar Learning Outcomes