Purdue’s Common Reading

Written by  //  August 24, 2011  //  Faculty, Staff, Students  //  5 Comments

I just finished reading this year’s common reading selection for Purdue’s incoming first year students. The true story is about a woman named Henrietta Lacks and revolves around issues related to ethics, science, and racial issues.

If you have not read the book, I highly recommend doing so. The ethical issues revolve around medical research as it was conducted in the U.S. and the lingering unanswered questions we continue to have. The science story is how cell-based research using Henrietta Lacks’ cells, without her or her family’s knowledge, becomes one of the most important medical research tools throughout the world. The racial issues revolve around lives of poor African-Americans over the last few generations who are the extended family of Henrietta Lacks.

From my perspective, I would also add that the book covers a topic and a story that I would describe as an in-depth portrait of the impact of technology on society. Although the story is about the discovery process in science, that discovery process would not be possible without the use of technology. A technology that has social consequences and ethical dilemmas that continues today.

5 Comments on "Purdue’s Common Reading"

  1. Steven Lincoln August 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm · Reply

    Dean Bertoline:

    I, too, thought this book raised lots of questions on any number of fronts. It is ripe with discussion possibilities that will help first-year students start to understand the complexity of most issues.

    Similarly, we posted on the College of Technology Facebook page today a link to a public radio story about the “unintended consequences” of technology, which you point out in your final sentence. See the post here: http://www.facebook.com/techpurdue.

    I’m glad you found the book compelling, and I’ll second your recommendation!

  2. Sharon Kraebber August 29, 2011 at 1:59 am · Reply

    I encourage you to watch this CBS Sunday Morning 10 minute video about Henrietta Lacks.
    I feel this story was very moving and very indicative of the lives of indigent African Americans in the United States for most of the 20th century. Living in Memphis in the 1980s we saw the reminants of segregation…two public bathrooms side by side, separate cafeterias in manufacturing companies, public parks closed to African Americans except for one day a week. As a healthcare professional associated with the University of TN Medical Center in Memphis, I encountered many African Americans who were skeptical of medicine and scared of doctors and people in white coats. Henrietta’s treatment was the standard of practice at that time and well into the 1970s. While we all have been touched by the medical advances that can be traced back to Henrietta’s cells, there have been “unintended consequences” of those advances. Human dignity and a family’s legacy are among them.

  3. Steven Lincoln August 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm · Reply

    Sharon — thanks for the link and the insights.

  4. Suzanne Coolbaugh-Walker August 30, 2011 at 11:17 pm · Reply

    I found the book evocative as well, and am reading it again with my daughters now. The author did a marvelous job of weaving together the human story of the Lacks family and the scientific aspects of the roots of genetic science. She did so in a way that illustrated the scientific process and raised ethical and social justice issues in parallel, and allowed the reader to form their own images. I felt a particularly strong pull from the theme of racial inequality and discrimination, and have been moved on an emotional as well as intellectual level by the family’s story. Though I’d have had a very different perspective as a 17 or 18 year-old, I think this book was an excellent choice for a common reading experience for Purdue students.

  5. Gary Bertoline August 31, 2011 at 1:20 am · Reply


    Thank you for your very insightful comments regarding the book and posting your comments.

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