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KNOXVILLE—– The 2011-2012 academic year will bring some significant changes to the Life of the Mind (LOM) program, the common reading experience that gives first-year students their initial taste of academic life at UT Knoxville.

Life of the MindThe LOM book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, an award-winning science writer.

For the first time, the Life of the Mind will be part of a new First-Year Studies course, FYS 100: The Volunteer Connection. This will be a zero-credit, pass-fail course that all first-year students must complete between orientation and the first few weeks of class.

As part of the course, students will read the book, attend a discussion session and a lecture by the author, and complete a creative project. Students also complete technology and academic success tutorials and participate in activities designed to help them make the transition from high school to college.

“We believe The Volunteer Connection will add structure to the Life of the Mind program and increase the participation rate,” said Sally McMillan, vice provost for academic affairs. “We invite the entire campus community to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, participate in related campus events, and encourage our incoming students as they engage in this exciting program.”

At least 150 faculty and staff members are needed to serve as Life of the Mind discussion group facilitators. Their responsibilities will include:

  • Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (The Provost office will provide facilitators with free copies of the book.)
  • Attending a facilitator orientation in early August to discuss the book with colleagues and get ideas for leading an engaging discussion.
  • Reviewing up to thirty creative projects submitted by the students in your discussion group via Blackboard and generating feedback. (Blackboard experience is not necessary; training will be provided.)
  • Leading a one-hour discussion with a small group of freshmen at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, August 15, and ensure that attendance is taken. Facilitators also will be invited to attend Skloot’s presentation at 9:00 a.m. on the same day.
  • Complete a brief survey about your experience.

To volunteer to be a facilitator, go to and complete the brief form. A representative of the Provost office will then contact you to provide additional information and send you a copy of the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published just last year, has received wide acclaim, including selection as a New York Times Notable Book and the editors’ choice for the Best Book of 2010, and is being made into a movie, produced in part by Oprah Winfrey.

The book tells of the African American woman whose cervical cancer cells, taken during a biopsy and cultured without her knowledge or permission in the 1950s, have been integral in developing the polio vaccine, unlocking secrets of cancer and viruses, helping understand the effects of the atom bomb, and contributing to the development of in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. The cells are known as HeLa, a name derived from the initial letters of her first and last names.

Skloot’s book weaves together many important themes, including African American history, research, and medical ethics. She explains the science of HeLa cells but also introduces readers to the Lacks family and their journey in understanding what happened to Henrietta.

“Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent,” Skloot’s website says. “And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits.…The story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was chosen during a three-month process during which the LOM committee reviewed more than one hundred nominations from the campus community. Members cited the book’s broad, cross-disciplinary nature and relevance to the campus’s celebration of fifty years of African American achievement as reasons for its selection. The University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State University also have used this book for similar programs. For more information about the book and the author, visit

For questions about UT’s LOM program, contact Drew Webb at


Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034,