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Who was Henrietta Lacks?

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Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Biology Disciplinary Core Ideas Is Lesson Plan Science and Engineering Practices High School Grades 6-8 Grades 9-12

Sensemaking Checklist

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Teachers and families across the country are facing a new reality of providing opportunities for students to do science through distance and home learning. The Daily Do is one of the ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families with this endeavor. Each weekday, NSTA will share a sensemaking task teachers and families can use to engage their students in authentic, relevant science learning. We encourage families to make time for family science learning (science is a social process!) and are dedicated to helping students and their families find balance between learning science and the day-to-day responsibilities they have to stay healthy and safe.

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What is sensemaking?

Sensemaking is actively trying to figure out how the world works (science) or how to design solutions to problems (engineering). Students do science and engineering through the science and engineering practices. Engaging in these practices necessitates students be part of a learning community to be able to share ideas, evaluate competing ideas, give and receive critique, and reach consensus. Whether this community of learners is made up of classmates or family members, students and adults build and refine science and engineering knowledge together.


In honor of Henrietta Lacks' 100th birthday, we are sharing American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) ScienceNetLink's lesson The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Using Henrietta Lacks' story (and others that followed) students learn what bioethics is and how it has influenced cellular research from the 1950s until now. They learn what informed consent is and its importance to researchers and patients. Students also learn how a major piece of science history has impacted their lives on an individual level.

This lesson makes use of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, which is one of the winners of the 2011 Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books (a project of AAAS). You can still teach this lesson if your students don't have access to the book. Substitute the Historical Context of Humans in Research lesson from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research when you reach the part of this lesson that asks students to read the book. (Students analyze four historically notable case studies, including two cases covered in the book: Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells and The Tuskegee Syphilis Study.)

If you are unfamiliar with Henrietta Lacks' story, watch the video clip below, Henrietta Lacks: Her DNA fueled medical breakthroughs, which aired on CBS This Morning, August 8, 2013. This news story provides a very brief summary of the ethical issue of the use of Henrietta Lacks' (HeLa) cells in medical research without informed consent from Henrietta Lacks or her family.

Want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks? Watch NSTA's Science Update: The Enduring Legacy of Henrietta Lacks, recorded Wednesday, September 16, 2020.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The ubiquitous cell line HeLa (whose immortality provides the book title) has helped power the explosive growth of cell biology for more than 50 years. But for all that is known about the cells themselves, most people know little if anything about the history and the woman behind these cells. In her book, investigative reporter Skloot explores the mystery behind HeLa cells (pronounced hee la), her obsession with telling the real truth about Henrietta Lacks, and the scientists, doctors, and institutions involved in this fascinating story that revolves around Lacks’ cervical cancer cells.

It’s a story the students won’t soon forget, which is exactly what happened to Rebecca Skloot.

Book cover Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

She first heard about HeLa cells at age 16 while attending a community college biology class. Her professor told the class that HeLa cells were the most famous cells ever, and that they came from an African American woman who died of cervical cancer. That was all he knew, and Skloot immediately wanted to know who the “donor” was, where she came from, if her family knew her cells were still alive, and what her real name was. (Until Skloot’s book, Lacks was pretty much anonymous.)

Years went by before Skloot had the resources to pursue this mystery, but once she started uncovering the story, she didn’t give up, and a decade of research resulted in this award-winning book.


Using the HeLa student activity sheet, students begin this lesson by reading Henrietta Lacks' “Immortal” Cells, which is an interview with the author that summarizes the book and the story behind HeLa cells.

Use this interview to begin a class discussion about HeLa cells.

  • What differentiates HeLa cells from other human cells? They never die.
  • Henrietta’s doctor removed her cancer tissue during an autopsy and didn’t tell her family. Do you think he should have asked her family for permission and why? Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.
  • How would you define informed consent? It is getting permission from individuals to use their tissues or perform a procedure on them, and making sure they fully understand what it is they are agreeing to allow the doctors to do.
  • If you go to the dermatologist and he or she removes a mole, what do you think is done with that tissue sample? Most likely it’s sent to a tissue bank where it can be used for research.
  • How would you define bioethics? It is the moral principles that guide biological research and how these principles are upheld in the field of medicine.


In this part of the lesson, students will learn more about the case of Henrietta Lacks by reading the book. Before they do so, have students read Skloot’s article, Taking the Least of You, which discusses other legal cases where patients fought for control over their cell tissue.

Note: These two articles, Could Your Cells Be Worth Millions? and Ask Henrietta Lacks: Whose body is it, anyway?, can be used in place of Taking the Least of You, which requires a subscription to The New York Times.

Once students have read this article, engage them in a discussion using the questions on the HeLa teacher sheet (students can record their responses on the HeLa student activity sheet). Once you have had this discussion with students, use the Debate Form from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research to lead students in a debate about patient rights regarding using human tissue for research.

Note: If students don't have access to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, navigate to the Historical Context of Humans in Research lesson at this time.

Now that students have a basic understanding of HeLa cells and the story behind them, have them read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. They should use the HeLa Reading Log, found on the HeLa student activity sheet, to guide them as they read. The reading log guides students through the book, which is divided into three parts. The reading log follows this layout. You may want to suggest that students stop after reading each part and discuss the questions in class. You can find suggested responses to the questions on the HeLa Reading Log teacher sheet.


To assess students’ understanding of ethics in research, have them perform one of these two suggested activities:

  • Read Ethics in Research and write an essay about the voluntary and involuntary participation in medical research. Have students use the matrix at the end of the Key Concepts student sheet to guide them in writing the essay (you can find definitions for the concepts on the Key Concepts teacher sheet). Ask them to define the key concepts listed in the table and then incorporate those in their essay to demonstrate understanding of the concepts.
  • Watch the video Informed Consent and Medical Research. Different cultures hold different beliefs about health, religion, and death, as shown in the video. In some cultures, if a person is terminally ill, the family members may tell the doctors they do not want that person to know they are dying for fear the person will give up and die. This is called a right not to know. Ask students to write an essay exploring the question, "If you had a terminal illness, would you want to know? Why or why not?" Have the students use the matrix at the end of the Key Concepts student sheet to guide them in writing the essay. Ask them to define the key concepts listed in the table and then incorporate those in their essay to demonstrate understanding of the concepts.


NSTA Collection of Resources for Today's Daily Do

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