September 16, 2011

Emmanuel Holds 93rd Academic Convocation

Emmanuel College held its Academic Convocation ceremony on September 13th in the Jean Yawkey Center gymnasium. Emmanuel Professor of Philosophy and Director of Values-Based Education Dr. Raymond Devettere delivered the keynote address, discussing the ethical, medical, racial and social issues raised by Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this year's reading selection for incoming first-year students.

The book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American farmer from Virginia, whose cancerous cells, known as the immortal line HeLa, became one of the most significant tools in medicine, playing a vital role in developing the polio vaccine, gene mapping, cloning, and in vitro fertilization. Though Henrietta's cells have generated millions of dollars in profit for medical researchers, she remains almost unknown, and her family is still unable to afford healthcare.

Dr. Joyce De Leo, vice president of academic affairs, provided the opening remarks. As a scientist whose research focuses on managing chronic pain, De Leo spoke of the book's impact on her as both a scientist and a person.

"I had worked with HeLa cells, among many human cell lines, and I never imagined where these cells came from. I never imagined that the label HeLa was based on the name of a poor tobacco farmer, Henrietta Lacks. Nor had I considered that these cells were taken without her or her family's knowledge or consent."

"The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks is not a story that lives in the past, but one that shape our lives and our future," said De Leo. She encouraged students to uphold the moral ideals brought to light in Skloot's book, both in their studies at Emmanuel and as a member of society after graduation. "Actively engage in something that doesn't seem right. Be the one in the group that questions the ethics. Be the critical thinker. Be the leader. Grow not only intellectually, but consider your role as a person in this college, in this amazing city and in the larger community."

De Leo began and ended her talk with a quote from Elie Wiesel, which appropriately serves as the epigraph to the book.

"We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph."

In his address, Devettere posed a series of questions to the audience of students, faculty and staff.

"Was it moral, was it right, for the doctors to take those second two biopsies without asking [Henrietta?]" Devettere referred to this and the questions on medical testing and privacy that followed as "settled" questions, all answered with a definite "no."

Devettere continued with a succession of "unsettled" questions regarding compensation for donated cells and our rights to our own cells as personal property. For these answers, he placed the responsibility in the hands of Emmanuel students.

"It would be wrong I think to say that there is no right answer. I'd rather we say there is a right answer. We don't know it yet. Maybe you'll help us find it."

 "That's why we stress values-based education at Emmanuel," said Devettere. "We hope our faculty and students will raise the value questions, the moral questions, in their science courses...but also across the curriculum."

"The point of a values based education...is simply to prevent moral blindness, to overcome a lack of moral awareness that can affect all of us and to become sensitive to what the researchers and the scientists in the 50s and 60s-bent on doing good, bent on finding cures, bent on doing great science-never saw. Good people with good intentions often do terrible things. With values-based education we can prevent that from happening in the future."