MILLBURN NJ - Millburn High School students, mostly sophomores and freshman, were in for a treat early Tuesday morning when they gathered among faculty and community members for Millburn’s first “Big Read.”

Headed by the school’s English chair, Jessica Siegel, the assembly brought further insight into a Baltimore family that has become known for their influence in modern science history.

Last summer, students, teachers, and Millburn residents were asked to read "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot. This nonfiction book is about Henrietta Lacks, known for her contribution to science. Scientists were able to duplicate her immortal HeLa cells, which were discovered during her treatment for cervical cancer.  These HeLa cells are substantial because they can never die and have brought great contributions to modern research, like the discovery of the polio vaccine and advacements in cancer research. There was some controversy related to Lacks’ contribution since the scientists used the cells without her permission. 

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Due to the book's ability to tie together science, English, history, and ethical issues, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was praised by many as a great selection by the MHS English department.

The assembly was comprised of a picture slide show and a question and answer formatted panel made up of MHS seniors with a passion for journalism. The two guests were David (Sonny) Lacks, the son of the late Henrietta Lacks, and Henrietta’s grandson, David Lacks. The Lacks son and grandson, enlightened the crowd with light humor, stories from their past, and described how HeLa cells have contributed to scientific inquiry. They also recounted how Lacks’ story ignited debate on the controversial issues of using cells without a patient’s permission.

The moderators of the panel were MHS students Justin Dower, Julia Fine, and Theodore Moskowitz, who are prospective journalists after they move on from MHS next year. The questions and comments they read to the assembly were contributed by students of all ages from middle school to high school. One comment that raised awareness of HeLa cells’ fascinating contributions came from a Millburn Middle School 7th grader and read:

”Thank you. My brother, at a very young age suffered from cancer. Thankfully, our hospital was blessed with skilled doctors and effective medicine. After I read the book this summer, my mother explained to me that it was your mother’s cells that were used in the creation of the medicines that saved my brother’s life.”

This quote, read by Teddy Moskowitz to Henrietta’s family members, filled the assembly with emotion and brought joy to the hearts of all of the audience members. A question to Henrietta’s son, Sonny, was asked by Julia Fine, “Would you donate cells to scientific research if you were asked?” Sonny Lacks responded enthusiastically about the great contributions that his mother’s cells have made in science and went on to say that he would donate his cells because of all of the inspiring stories he has heard over the years of people benefitting from donated cells.

Siegel went on to emphasize the fact that this assembly would not be possible without the generous donations from the Ed Foundation and the PTO. When asked about the success of Millburn’s first Big Read, Siegel mentioned that there was such great support for this first community Big Read and that there are plans to implement it in upcoming years. Siegel also talked about how Big Reads in other communities and college campuses have succeeded in getting more people involved in reading and discussing imprortant books.

The Big Read that took place Tuesday was rescheduled from November 1, 2012, due to Hurricane Sandy. Luckily, the bad weather could not discourage eager students, faculty, and community members from packinginto the high school auditorium for the spectacular seminar and PowerPoint. The assembly was so popular that some students were left watching from the cafeteria, but Sonny and David Lacks’ words were educational and inspirational no matter from where they were heard.


- Aaron Friedman is a sophomore at Millburn High School