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Author Rebecca Skloot Encourages Freshman to Follow Their Curiosity

A New York Times best-selling writer, who has received widespread critical acclaim, would likely have been an excellent student. But that isn’t true for Rebecca Skloot, author of this year’s freshman book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

“I was bored,” said Skloot. “I was just one of those kids who did not connect to school. Nothing grabbed me. I got a 0.5 GPA in my freshman year of high school, which I didn’t even know was possible.”

Skloot talked about overcoming her struggles in school, her journey to becoming a writer and offered encouragement to more than 300 Loyola Marymount University freshmen on Tuesday, Oct., 12, in Gersten Pavilion. “You’re embarking on a really exciting journey [in college], one that will change your life,” Skloot said. Each year, the incoming freshman class is assigned a book to read during the summer, and the author is invited to campus to speak.

Skloot’s education path took a positive turn, and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing.  She is currently a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications. She has taught in the creative writing programs at the University of Memphis and the University of Pittsburgh, and she taught science journalism at New York University. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” her debut book, was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick for spring 2010, with reviews appearing in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Science, Entertainment Weekly, People, and among others.

One of the primary reasons for her success, Skloot said, was her recognition of what she calls the “what? moment,” those times when something grabs your attention so much that it makes you stop and thoroughly explore it. One of her “what? moments” came when she was 16, and heard the story of Henrietta Lacks in a biology course. Her teacher explained that scientists took Lacks’ cells without her permission to conduct scientific research. Although Lacks had passed away, her cells were still alive and have become one of the most important tools in modern medicine, including discovery of the polio vaccine, uncovering secrets to cancers and viruses, and helping to lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. However, all that was taught about Lacks was that she was a black woman.

“I wondered why do we only know this one fact of her being black? Skloot said. “Why don’t we know anything else? Did she have kids and what do they think about it? The idea just stuck with me. Learning to recognize those moments when they actually are happening is really important.”

This insatiable fascination with Lacks led Skloot to write the book, which took 10 years to complete. Skloot encouraged the students to recognize the value in discovering their own “what? moments” no matter their field of study. She especially reached out to those students who are undecided. “Follow your curiosity and passion, and you’ll find a future for yourself that will make you happy,” Skloot said. “Success in any field involves learning to trust your gut. Be curious about things and follow that. You never know where it’s going to lead you.”

Posted Oct. 13, 2010