Stem Cells Across The Curriculum

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HeLa Cells & Tissue Culture Video

In 2009, Charnell Covert completed a course entitled Stem Cells & Social Justice at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. As the narrative of the establishment of the first human cell line HeLa was presented in the documentary film The Way of All Flesh, she found herself increasingly disturbed by the lack of recognition of the human dimension of this significant biomedical breakthrough. Motivated to make a change, Charnell wrote a play based on her enthnographic research focused on Black Women and health inequity entitled Healing, in which one vignette centers on the story of Henrietta Lacks. In 2012, Charnell directed and acted in the full-length production of this play on the New School campus with support from the Lang College Office of Civic Engagement and Social Justice and funding from the Empire State Stem Cell Board/ NYSTEM. They Called Me HeLa is a derivative of this production and can be used as an educational slide show to integrate the two narratives, that of Henrietta Lacks and that of the HeLa cell line. Charnell values teaching social justice, and has been a Sociology and Culture Adjunct Professor in the African-American Studies Department at CUNY New York City College of Technology, and Adjunct Professor at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, and a working artist and executive director of her own social justice and womanist performance and education consulting firm, Covert Consulting. She is available for scheduling performances of this single scene focused on Henrietta Lacks or full-length performances of Healing ( They Called Me HeLa is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Non Derivative License. To view a copy of this license, visit Users must view this slideshow using this site, and attribute Stem Cells Across the Curriculum and the creators of this work, Charnell Covert, Katayoun Chamany, and Clarence Elie. No alterations, adaptations, or derivative works are permitted. We recommend this citation format for referencing the work. Covert, C., Chamany, K. and Elie, C. 2013. They Called Me HeLa Educational Slide Show. Stem Cells Across the Curriculum/Media. Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Since the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it has become increasingly more important to provide alternative narratives of the emergence of this cell line and the impact that its derivation had on the lives of the Lacks family, the African American community, and the scientific and biomedical fields. The remaining videos, text, and Radiolab references seek to bring these alternative narratives forward. An update to this story in the context of genomic research can be found under the Video Guide titled “Informed Consent: Genomics.” More resources exist in the Hela Cells & HPV Genes Immortality & Cancer Learning Activity 1 from Stem Cells Across the Curriculum.

  1. Book:  Skloot, R. 2010. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers.
  2. Letter: Kumar, R. Aug. 28, 2012. An Open Letter to Those Colleges and Universities that have Assigned Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the “Common” Freshman Reading for the Class of 2016. Brown Town Magazine. Link
  3. Slide Show and Theatrical Reading: Covert, C., Chamany, K., and Elie, C. 2013. “They Called Me HeLa.” This slide show is a theatrical monologue from “Healing” with visual narrative of Henrietta’s Life and the impact of her cells as a research tool.
  4. Film: Curtis, A.  1997. Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh. Aired on BBC. Modern Times Series, Editor Stephen Lambert. 52 minutes. Link. This documentary is based on the history of Henrietta Lacks and the emergence of human cell lines. The documentary was aired in BBC’s Modern Times series in 1998, and won Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The following time stamps provide short video viewing options
    1. 7:59-13:00 Overview
    2. 18:50-25 Nelson Reese /Race Connection
    3. 31:00 U.S.- Russian Breach/Scientific Competition and Contamination
    4. 40:00-47:00 Lacks Family/Cancer
  5. Article: Landecker, H. 1999. Between beneficence and chattel: The human biological in law and science. Science in Context. 12 (1): 203-225.
  6. Article: Weasel, Lisa H. 2004. Feminist Intersections in Science: Race, Gender and Sexuality Through the Microscope. Hypatia. 19(1) Winter:183-193.
  7. Artwork & Video: Wilson-Roe, H. & Roe J. 2013. A Brush With Immortality. Science Museum. Link
  8. Radio: Radiolab Extra: Henrietta Lacks. Apirl 18, 2017. 30 min Link. Reviews the story of Henrietta Lacks and  contains archival sound footage of an interview with her doctor Howard Jones,George Gey's research assistant Mary Kubicek, and Deborah Lacks.This update reviews the publication of the HeLa cell genome on a public website and the backlash from the scientific community and the Lacks family which eventually led to a Task Force being formed to address who can have access to this genomic information. The republication coincides with the launch of the film based on Rebecca Skloot's book.
  9. Microscopy: AMNRF, University of Sydney/ Science Photo Library. HeLa  Cancer Cell Growth, Timelapse.  Link. Timelapse light microscope footage of cultured HeLa cancer cells dividing over a 24-hour period with nuclei stained in blue using DAPI. Imaged with differential interference contrast (DIC). Images captured every ten minutes.
  10. Film: Wolfe, G. April 2017. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Harpo Films and HBO. Link
  11. Article: Berskow, L. 2016. Lessons from HeLa cells: The ethics and policy of biospecimens. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics.17:395-417. Link
  12. Article: Lynch, H. and Joffe, S. April 2, 2017. A Lesson From the Henrietta Lacks Story: Science Needs Your Cells New York Times.: A27. Link