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Learning Lessons from the Life of Henrietta Lacks

Students in Carmella Antonino's classHigh school students in Carmella Antonino’s senior English class are reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book tells the story of a Baltimore woman who sought cervical cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital more than 60 years ago. Some of her cells were taken without her knowledge; the practice of informed consent was essentially unheard of at the time. The cells proved to be immortal and have been used in research labs for decades, fueling scientific and medical discoveries. They are now referred to as HeLa cells.

Antonino, who teaches at Excel Academy @ Francis M. Wood in Baltimore, thought her students would benefit from learning more about the science and bioethical issues explored in the book. She initiated a field trip to Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus, where the students toured science labs, used real science equipment and talked about informed consent in the context of clinical trials and scientific research.

Many of Antonino’s students never before had been to a college campus let alone have had opportunities to be exposed to state-of-the-art science lab equipment.

“We are teaching them that literary skills cross content areas,” Antonino said. “It is important for them to apply the literary skills to science and see how all the content areas are intertwined.”

Students learned from Center for Biotechnology Education faculty about how to split cells in the wet lab. They also visited other companies located on campus. At Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, they talked about informed consent for Alzheimer’s disease research. At TissueGene, they learned about clinical trials.

Center for Biotechnology Education faculty also talked to students during lunch about health insurance, pre-existing conditions and informed consent.

Student in lab Students working together in lab