Common Reading

Welcome to the SMU Common Reading Program!  The Common Reading Program is an established start-of-school tradition at SMU.  As the incoming class you will receive the book during the summer at AARO and should read it before you arrive for the start of the fall semester.  Faculty, staff, and returning SMU students have already begun reading and discussing the book in preparation for small-group conversations you will participate in before Rotunda Passage and Opening Convocation.  Your first-year writing courses will use the book as part of your curriculum for the fall semester.  

Henrietta Lacks Book Cover

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

This years Common Reading is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  According to the author's website the book tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

What's Happening?

"HeLa Cells Up Close" with Joel M. Goodman - Wednesday, September 7, 2011, 6:00p.m.  The Gartner Honors Lecture Series presents the first of three Common Reading Events.  Location: O'Donnell Lecture Hall, Owen Fine Arts Center, Room 2130. 

The Story

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”

Read more about this incredible true story.

Think About It

Cutting across the issues of race, informed consent, socio-economic divides and bioethics is the pervasive ethical issue distilled in several questions: Ought Henrietta have been told of her surgically induced sterility before hand? Should her family have been compensated for Henrietta’s profound contribution to medicine? Should any individual be given ownership rights to his/her tissues? How much, if at all, should downstream developers and researchers be allowed to profit—including patents of cell lines—from an individual patient’s contribution?

Explore and discuss issues presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Author 

Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot
Award-Winning Science Writer

Find out more about this fascinating author.


Departments, faculty and staff across SMU have developed helpful resources for the 2011 Common Reading. Click on any of links below to be taken to the Resources section. 

Videos and Podcasts

Faculty Perspectives

Campus Resources

Book Reviews

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BlogHave something to say? Want to get to know SMU Faculty? Visit the Common Reading Blog to respond to join discussions led by SMU Faculty, Staff and Students. 

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Why should you care?

  1. Law & Order used it for the basis of an episode.
  2. Her story shaped the ethical process for Medical Experimentation & Informed Consent. Now doctors must follow strict legal and ethical guidelines.
  3. HeLa cells were the first ever cloned and help developed the Polio vaccine.
  4. We use HeLa cells in our research on the SMU campus!
  5. More than 60 critics named The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as one of the Best Books of 2010, and over 30 colleges have selected it for its Common Reading.
  6. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.
  7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is being adapted into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.
  8. In 1960 Henrietta’s cells went up in the second satellite ever in orbit!
  9. If all the HeLa cells that have been produced were weighed, they would add up to 50 million metric tones and if laid out, they would wrap around the earth three times.
  10. According to Wired, HeLa Cells are the most popularly used cell lines for research.

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