Common Book Information

Each summer, first-year students complete their first college assignment by participating in the Buckeye Book Community. First-year students will purchase the book prior to or during orientation and are asked to complete the reading before they return to campus. Students should be prepared to discuss and analyze what they have read. Students on every Ohio State campus will be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this summer.

The Buckeye Book Community connects the first-year class through a shared experience and introduces the expectation that college students cultivate a life of learning both in and outside the classroom. 

2012 Common Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the woman whose cancerous cells, known as HeLa cells, were vital for developing numerous medical advances. They have been bought and sold by the billions, yet the cells were taken without her consent, and Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown. Her family found out nearly 20 years after that Henrietta’s cells were still alive. It is an astonishing story of scientific discovery and the ethical implications involved. It is a story that approaches the intersections of race, class, and science in our culture and our history. It is the story of the unknown life of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who has changed all of our lives.


photo of book cover

Here is an online resource for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Consider searching the internet where you will find many resources to supplement you reading experience.

The Assignment:

At Freshman Welcome Day, Monday, August 20th you will be required to turn in a 2-3 page response paper focusing on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on one of the prompts listed below. The assignment is part of your Exploration 1100.01 course, which is required for all new Ohio State Marion students. The assignment is worth a total of 50 points. 25 points for attending Welcome Day, and a maximum of 25 points for the written paper.

Printing is not available on Freshmen Welcome Day so be sure you have your printed paper with you!

Follow the instructions below and choose a writing prompt from the list provided.  Complete your writing assignment based on the prompt you select. If you quote from the book in your paper, be sure to use correct MLA style citation to document your source.  Be certain that your work is your own.

When you turn in your paper it should:

  • Include a cover sheet containing the following information
    • your first and last name and OSU user name (last name.#)
    • planned major of study

    • Exploration class section number (check your class schedule on your Student Center)

    • Exploration instructor’s name (check your class schedule on your Student Center)

    • Writing prompt number/Title

      • The paper must be typed
      • Set your document to be typed in 12 pt., Times New Roman font, and double spaced
      • Length - two to three double spaced typed full 8.5”x 11” pages
      • Papers should be well thought out, with a clear thesis and argument to support your thesis, using the text for evidence.

Choose one of the following writing prompts as the focus for your paper

  1. Scientific Discovery: Discuss the medical breakthroughs from HeLa cells. Have your attitudes or ideas towards medical research changed in any way due to reading this book? What would the current state of healthcare be like had it not been for HeLa cells?
  2. Ethical Argument: In the years since the uniqueness of Henrietta Lacks’s cells were discovered, others have been identified with cells that are valuable on the research market. In Chapter Five, Skloot details the history of John Moore, whose cells produced rare proteins, and Ted Slavin, whose cells produced valuable antibodies. All three cases are quite different in many ways, including how their doctors used the information. Should individuals be able to profit from their own cells? Should their doctors? With consent? Do you think Henrietta would have provided consent for her cells to be taken and used had she been asked? Should the Lack’s family receive compensation for Henrietta’s cells?
  3. Social Justice: The author notes social inequities both explicitly and implicitly. What parts of Henrietta’s story might be different if she had been white? What might have been different if she had been middle or upper-middle class? How do social inequalities affect health care today?
  4. Author’s Methodology: Skloot had to make a lot of choices about how she recounted Henrietta’s story and how she structured the book. What do we know about her process from the foreword and endnotes? How does her narrative reconstruction of Henrietta’s life impact the story? How do you feel about the reconstruction? How would the book be different without Skloot’s personal observations?
  5. Historical Impact: What does this book tell us about the history of science and how science has progressed since the 1950s? After reading this book and considering the events it details, what do you think are key factors that influence scientific progress?
  6. Current Events: Making health care affordable to all Americans has been a recent political focus. What does the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family add to this discussion? Discuss the state of healthcare in America today and share your opinions of how it should change or stay the same. Provide solid evidence of your argument.

Contact your academic advisor if you have questions about the assignment.

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Past Common Book Information

2011: "Outcasts Unlimited" by Warren St. John