Evans High teacher uses biology class to tell story of black woman whose cancer cells are used in medical research

An Evans High biology teacher is making sure her students know the story behind the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

 

When Dana McCullough started graduate school in 2011, she was asked by her professor if she had ever read the story of Henrietta Lacks —The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. McCullough said she picked up the book for the first time and couldn’t put it down.

Since 2011, McCullough, a biology teacher at Evans High School, has been implementing the story of Lacks in her biology class and Wednesday, students will get the chance to meet and experience the person responsible for telling Lacks’ story. Without Lacks’ knowledge or approval, her cells were taken from her cervical cancer biopsy in 1951. As a result her cells—known as “HeLa” cells—were the first to be medically reproduced. Today, the cells are still used for medical research.

Recognizing the importance of Lacks’ story, a number of events will be held locally to raise awareness of Lacks, with Lacks’ family and the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, on hand.

Columbia County Library will host a Black History Month event at 7 p.m.Wednesday presenting Lacks’ story, while another event will be 11 a.m. Thursday at Candler Library of Paine College, which will feature Lacks’ family. The last event will also be Thursday at 7 p.m. in Lee Auditorium on the Augusta University Health Sciences campus.

McCullough said it is paramount to tell the story of Lacks, an African-American woman, to her rising freshmen during the school year.

“What the story does for science is it allows us to bring difficult topics of conversation to the table,” McCullough said. “We discuss medical ethics, we discuss racism and we discuss inequity in health care. These are high school freshmen taking on difficult topics. That’s not going to happen with just the science curriculum. You have got to add the story to the mix to get that kind of conversation going in the classroom.”

From a scientific, educational standpoint, McCullough said the joining of Lacks’ story with the science curriculum is indispensable.

“They need to know the history behind the cells, and how we learn all of these things about cells,” McCullough said.

In the beginning of the school year, McCullough said she adds excerpts to specific applications of biology and her freshmen class frequently reads excerpts of Lacks’ story during the class.

The studying of Henrietta Lacks was McCullough’s idea, though other teachers in the Columbia County School district teach the book in literature class for STEM students.

 

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