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Changing Lives

Postdoctoral researcher Jack Hsiao explains some of the work he does with genetics professor Stormy Chamberlain to Angelman families during an open-lab day.

Postdoctoral researcher Jack Hsiao explains some of the work he does with genetics professor Stormy Chamberlain to Angelman families during an open-lab day.

Stories abound about what a certain professor can do to inspire a single student. How one lecture, one class, one thesis can be life-changing, even world-changing.

It was a community college biology instructor who introduced author Rebecca Skloot to the name “Henrietta Lacks.” After his lecture about cell division that included a bit about Lacks’s now famous He-La cells and the doctors who harvested them without her consent, Skloot asked for more information about Lacks. Her professor said he didn’t know anything more, and why didn’t she do some research and write a paper for extra credit? Twenty-two years later she sent him that paper — in the form of her best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

I heard Skloot tell that story at UConn’s Jorgensen Auditorium last fall. She was there because John Malone and Mark Longo, professors in UConn’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, had assigned Skloot’s book to their Introduction to Genetics class. They had then listened and responded when their students were so enthusiastic about the book they asked those professors to help them get Skloot to campus so they could meet her.

Putting this issue together I found myself thinking about Skloot and Lacks often because of another inspirational UConn genetics professor, Stormy Chamberlain. If only Henrietta Lacks had known Stormy Chamberlain!

Chamberlain invites the families of her research subjects, who have a disease called Angelman Syndrome, to open-lab days at her UConn Farmington facility. At the most recent of these, I was struck by the knowledge and passion her graduate students displayed while fielding questions from parents of Angelman children. “I do this as much for the grad students as for the parents,” Chamberlain told me as the day was getting underway. “They will be more engaged in their research if they know who it is for.”

I can’t help but envision these lab-coated students as the next generation of genetics professors and wonder if, inspired by this one professor, they will take research transparency to yet another place we cannot envision today.

Or perhaps they will become science writers like Skloot. After all, it was yet another professor who put Skloot on that particular path. A writing professor, whose class she was taking to satisfy an elective during her quest for a biology degree, told her she would make a terrific science writer and not to be afraid to give up a long-held goal in favor of a new goal.

Had she not taken his class and had he not given her that advice, Skloot said during her talk at Jorgensen, she would be a veterinarian today and she would still be wondering who Henrietta Lacks was. As would the rest of the world. “You never know what random sentence from a teacher might change a student’s life,” Skloot added.

Lisa Stiepock signature

—Lisa Stiepock

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