First Year Reading Experience Essay Winner

Phebe Alley

An Interview with Phebe Alley:

(skip to Phebe's essay)

I think that knowing there would be faculty discussion groups motivated students into reading the book. I like to read, so looked forward to it, but, I was also intrigued by the contest. I didn't know what it was for, but I see now that it was intended to model student engagement. At the time, I was just exhausted from Orientation (I did BuckWild) and was sleep deprived. I like the idea that faculty are involved with Orientation. I really enjoyed those discussions and still talk to a lot of kids who were in my group.

When I opened the book, I had trouble putting it down; I just kept reading and reading. I even recommended the book to my parents and family. I liked the science, and I loved the background on Henrietta Lacks. I feel like you got to know her through Rebekkah and Deb, who were doing their best to piece it together. Every time you got reading about the HeLa cells, and what the scientists were doing, and how it went from Johns Hopkins having them to everyone in the whole world having them, it was almost a little scary. I like the ethical part, and since I am going into science, I feel like it is a big concern how medicine and research manage their ethics. My favorite part, though, was the third section, where we got to know Deb and her struggles, her reaction, how she dealt with it, how she put herself through this, everything that she went through just to find the truth about her mother. Her journey to understanding was very personal and captivating, like when she was holding a container of cells for the first time, and tried to warm them up like you would a cold person. The book was captivating on so many levels, history, science, poverty, racism, that it was easy to find an idea of what to write about. Part of it was that I felt a connection to Deborah. As I was reading, I felt her pain...it was tangible.

I connected with the way the truth was painful to Deb, because, let's be honest, sometimes the truth hurts. Not many people were honest with her, and she had parts and pieces and stories, though she didn't even understand the terminology. Since the language didn't make sense to her, all she picked out were some big phrases like "HeLa cells are taking over," in a scary sci-fi sort of way. Deborah was amazing because even after her experience with the crazy lawyer, she was willing to open up and let Rebekah in. Persistence is like evidence based reasoning, in that it piles up over time, hypotheses emerge, and then eventually a broader, clearer picture. Rebekah applies the scientific method to the Lacks family in her persistence and attention to detail.

I like reading historical diaries, so my brother has put "Profiles in Courage" on my reading list. I read some mindless teen fiction for summertime and am reading a lot of schoolwork now. I recognize that my writing is not where I want it to be, and I see many strong writers in my Foundation Seminar, but I'm concerned that my science classes will not improve my writing skills. My dad is a doctor, and he always says to take Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychology, whatever. I hope to explore classes outside of my major and keep writing outside of class. I also want to study abroad and need to go to an English speaking country because, as a science major, I don't have time to learn a language.

People forget about the other side.They only think of the cells, but what about the person behind those cells, what about the family? That person has many others connected to them, and how does it affect them? It is never just one thing but is a ripple effect in many ways. I actually made a lot of these connections with my own life after writing the essay. Now I have to keep applying theses connections in my other classes. I come from a very poor rural area and meeting kids from such different backgrounds is really broadening my horizons.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Essay

winning essay by Phebe Alley

It is amazing how being left in the dark on something can change you. It eats away your stomach leaving a hollow, queasy feeling, gives you pounding headaches, shakiness, and eventually causes you to distrust everyone, even the people you are closest to. In reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, I felt a strong connection to Deborah even though our situations are different. Deborah had an extreme reaction to trying to find out what happened to her mother and her cells, from the hives, to strokes, high blood pressure and sugar, but in the end distrusted people because no one would explain to her what actually happened to her mother's cells. I did not realize how much I had in common with Deborah until the third part of the book where Skloot began to describe how Deborah first acted when she was around Skloot: her constant distrust and her hesitation to let anyone tell her what was truly going on. My nightmare did not last as long as Deborah's since it lasted only a year and a half, but it was long enough to understand the pain that Deborah felt and still have the effects of not trusting what people say.

One of the hardest parts of being in a situation where you don't really know what is truly going on is the what if's. Deborah did not understand what had happened to her mother. All she kept hearing was bits and pieces of what was happening through different media sources. "After reading the passage, Deborah fell apart." (page 210) So it was through reading about her mother's illness after her death that Deborah was finally able to understand the pain she endured, and through that experience that she felt it herself. Henrietta was Deborah's mother: She gave her life, she gave her love, and even though she wasn't with Deborah very long, her impact on Deborah was significant as any mother's impact is. I can sympathize and completely understand Deborah's personal pain for her mother. Mothers are people whom we elevate into a status of special importance and take great pride in, and when the mother is broken or hurt it is just as painful for the child. I experienced a similar situation as the school board president was under attack; all I could see is what I read in the paper. At first all I thought was that my mom had her own agenda, she was tearing apart the school and the community, the people whom she and the other board members had suspended were innocent, and she was the worst of them all because she was the leader of it. I could hear the students and teachers and even my cross country teammates talking about it in school, and then it seemed wherever I went in the community. Just like Deborah, I was surrounded by information, taken from some sources that were unknown, and I wondered who my mother really was, if she was everything the press printed. Reading how Deborah kept searching for answers, reminded me of the constant wondering what was really going on with my mother and just like Deborah, I went searching for answers. I searched blogs, watched endless reels of news footage, and read the articles to try to make sense of it. Unable to find peace until, like Deborah, I went to the sources, found the records, the documents, and the conversations revealing the truth. Not understanding and trying to find out who your mother really is when the press has conflicting, biased reports is one of the hardest events a person could ever experience, and my heart broke for Deborah as she went through her ups and downs. Since I experienced it firsthand, I know what kind of pain it is, and you are never the same after.

The pain affects people in more ways than imaginable. As Deborah says "I don't know who to trust." (page 240) After people in the world you live in trample over you, the way Cofield and other doctors did with Deborah, Henrietta and the family, you never truly recover. In the back of your mind everyone is the same and you can't trust anyone with what they say. Even to a point your best friends and colleagues, just like Deborah and her family, I am uneasy with people some days. I watched a newspaper for over a year spread lies about the school board and my mom that most of our community believed. Because of the laws, the board could not share what had happened, and I finally realized after doing my own research that my mother was doing the right thing. But the phone calls, letters, and nasty emails kept coming. During the day we had to close all of the front curtains so that when people stopped they couldn't see into our home. We kept a wary eye out for the private investigator that someone sent to hassle us who would show up every other week. We watched the mail carefully to make sure that no one ever took the documents being sent to my mom. We completely stopped answering the phone, just like the Lacks family when Cofield started his law suits. "Deborah had her husband hang dark curtains on their windows and stopped answering the phone." (page 230) She just wanted to shut everything out and make sure that she was safe. That's what I had to do to, but there are consequences for it. When you shut out the world, you end up shutting out your friends and family. The trust is no longer there, and that is what I have struggled with and that is what Deborah struggled with.

There are lessons that everyone should take from Deborah. People in positions of power took advantage of Henrietta Lacks, as well as Deborah and her family, yet she continued to eventually reopen up and let new people into her life and try to make her family's life better. Deborah never let anything stop her from discovering the truth, not her health or anything that stood in her way. I could take a couple more lessons from her with her strength, determination, and the way she never gave up believing that her mother was a great woman no matter what anyone said. The parallels I have experienced were similar enough for me to feel the pain and confusion that Deborah had. After reading the book, she is not only one of the strongest people I can think of, but also my hero.

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