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    December 30, 2008

    Welcome to Culture Dish, the Sequel


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    Yes, it’s true, Culture Dish has found a new (and improved) home. After a long blogging hiatus while I finished writing my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (see below for details), I’m now packing up shop and moving here to ScienceBlogs (you can subscribe via RSS here, or get Culture Dish updates delivered to your email inbox by clicking here). As a welcome to readers old and new, here’s a bit of a Culture Dish history as an introduction:
    I’m a science writer whose forthcoming book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, tells the story of the amazing HeLa cell line and the woman it came from: In 1951, doctors took a small tissue sample from an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. A scientist put that sample into a test tube, and though Henrietta died a few months later, her cells — known worldwide as HeLa — are still alive today. They became the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture and one of the most important tools in medicine: They were used to test the polio vaccine and sent up in early space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity. Research on HeLa helped uncover the secrets of cancer, viruses, and the affects of the atom bomb; it helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, stem cell research and gene mapping. Today, HeLa is still bought and sold by the billions and is the most widely used cell line in labs worldwide.
    Henrietta’s cells did wonders for science, but also had dramatic and troubling consequences for her children and husband – a tobacco farmer with a third grade education who struggled to afford housing and healthcare, and didn’t learn about the cells until 25 years after Henrietta’s death. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks traces the history of cell culture and the ethical debate surrounding research on human biological materials through the story of the HeLa cell line – the incredible science they inspired, the researchers who made it possible, the woman those cells came from, and the collision between science and her family. (More info and some related articles here.)
    I will be blogging quite a bit about that story and the book as it heads through the production process. Because of my HeLa obsession, I also tend to I blog about all things relating to tissues, bodies, bioethics, and their histories, including the many and strange things people do with human tissues, and questions about who owns (and can profit from) human bodies and their parts. This leads to posts about anything from Tsunami Victims Selling Kidneys to Congressional Investigations Into Researchers Profitting Off Human Tissues Without Consent, and much more.
    I blog about whatever catches my attention, which makes Culture Dish hard to categorize (though the tagline “Science, Writing, and Life” pretty much covers it). Generally speaking, I post about science and ethics (like the use of DNA for racial profiling, and questionable studies of fake blood), as well as science writing, the ethics of science book reviewing, and anything I stumble on related to the history of science.
    Before becoming a science writer, I worked for ten years as a veterinary technician (some of those years were in general practices, others in an emergency rooms and a veterinary morgue). Because of this, I tend to post about animals. This includes many serious topics, as well as the generally hilarious, and the and unfathomable.
    Interestingly, two of my most widely read Culture Dish posts are these old ones: Scientists Finally Quell My Quicksand Phobia, and How Science Finally Vindicated My Hate of Showering. Go figure. I take great pleasure in research that’s bizarre, but not bogus. I worked at the bench in a neurology lab and was trained in basic research science, perhaps because of that, I often find myself pointing out when science is bogus (like this). I do the same with bogus science headlines like this and this, and bogus science products.
    Because my magazine writing is sometimes about things that are, well, odd — like surgery for pet goldfish, Spray on Condoms, the science of Dancing Birds, Toxoplasmosis making people hoard cats, why yawns are contagious, and the mathematical equation for the perfect human ass — one of the fact checkers at the New York Times Magazine calls me the Queen of Science Quirk (a tough title to live up to).
    But I write about lots of serious stuff too. And I often use Culture Dish as a place to post follow-ups about articles I write, including photos, additional information from interviews, and material that didn’t make it into the final stories because of space, as well as general news updates related to the stories. So stay tuned … I have a story coming out in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine that will be featured on NPR’s Day-to-Day later this week (will post specific info when I have it). I’ll be posting more about it here once it’s out.
    Update: I’ve posted my latest New York Times Magazine story about the use of guide miniature horses, assistance monkeys and ducks, as well as lots of story follow up and other things. You can read all current Culture Dish posts here.

    56 Responses to “Welcome to Culture Dish, the Sequel”

    1. Matt Heath says:

      Cool. Sorry for going off half-cocked at you (I’ve put a note on my blog to straighten things out a bit btw). Actually, I’m not living in Britain any more but for most of my life so far I did and I still follow the papers from there online. Ben Goldacre does good work fighting the press release churning.

    2. Nope, he claims to have done it to bring attention to the issue he studies and writes about, but of course, it’s hard to separate money from situations like this: I see he now has a gig consulting for a BBC1 science reality show, so … money, fame, etc.
      I didn’t mention the PR firm or their client by name because doing so would have given them exactly the PR they were after: It would have gotten them and their client in the New York Times.
      I didn’t realize from your first comment that you’re living in the land of bad British science journalism (the US has some hideous science journalism, but the British press is especially bad about passing off press releases as news). Glad to see someone over there fighting it.

    3. Matt Heath says:

      When I talked with that researcher for the story (several years ago) he was very open about the fact that it was a PR stunt meant to bring attention to this pet issue of his.

      That’s pretty interesting. I always assumed that the researchers in these cases were just selling their good names purely for the money.
      wrt my missing tongue-in-cheek-detection gene: I don’t think I’m usually too bad at picking up on irony. Maybe credulous reporting of things that sound sciency obeys a version of Poe’s law; you can’t do a parody that couldn’t be written in earnest. Admittedly, that you actually mentioned the PR firm (and not their client) would have suggested an alarming lack of self-awareness if it were for real.

    4. I hear you. You’re very right to be skeptical of PR tricks (as a rule, I don’t do stories found via press release). When I talked with that researcher for the story (several years ago) he was very open about the fact that it was a PR stunt meant to bring attention to this pet issue of his. That’s why I led with the PR company in the first sentence, so people would know what was behind it.

    5. Matt Heath says:

      @Rebecca Skloot: Thanks for your response.

      So climb off your soapbox … this isn’t pseudoscience (something I am actually considered quite a stickler for, which has pissed plenty of people off). It’s a guy finding a goofy way to highlight issues like obesity and society’s unhealthy ideas about body image. Puh-lease.

      Ok, I pull back a bit from my criticism but I don’t believe the guy when he says he was trying to make people think about body image. I believe you believe him and that you wrote the article in good faith as an enemy of pseudoscience, but the whole shape of thing is identical to a PR trick used very often in the British press (I think it may be less common other places). A company approaches an academic (of one sort or another) and asks them for the “mathematical formula” for something. Because it’s fun and sciency-sounding it gets some coverage that sort of skirts around the issue of whether this is the person involved’s actual research rather than just a few minutes combining vaguely convincing-looking symbols. And even the “serious reason” behind it (here, thinking about body image) is often thrown in so the paper can feel they aren’t just being suckered into drawing attention to whoever paid for the study.
      It’s this sort of thing (as described by Ben Goldacre). There are stories like this every week in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail and it does add up to some real damage on how people view science.

    6. John A. Davison says:

      Thanks for the clarification. It is not only Pharyngula from which I have been banished. EvC, richarddawkins.net forum, Uncommon Descent, Panda’S Thumb, After The Bar Closes. and God (or Gods) only know how many other “groupthinktanks” have all found my science unacceptable. Just please have the common decency to present this comment before joining with the others by denying me further voice here.
      Incidentally, there is no conflict between evolution and creation, except in the minds of congenital atheists (Darwinians) and the also congenitally afflicted Fundamentalist Bible-bangers. I have no truck with either camp. I thought everybody knew that by now.
      “A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable.”

    7. @Carter: Thanks for posting that link. What a great story!
      @John A. Davison: It’s safe to say your comments won’t have a place here just like they have no place at Pharyngula, where you’ve been banned. I don’t write about evolution or creation, so your comments would be off topic. But regardless, I don’t do pseudoscience (see above).

    8. I appreciate your defense of science over pseudoscience, Matt, but you’ve got to be kidding me with this one. Perhaps you didn’t inherit the gene for realizing when a tongue is planted firmly in a cheek? It’s clear when you read that story that the point isn’t about the mathematical soundness of this guy’s equation. I mean, “B=Bounce Factor”? Please! I even give an example to illustrate the completely unscientific way he gets the numbers to plug into the equation. That story (like all stories in the Year in IDEAS issue of the NYTimes Magazine) is about the fact that some guy had this idea in the first place. It’s funny. Many things covered in the Times Magazine ideas issue are ones that wouldn’t warrant full coverage in a standard issue of the magazine, or in the newspaper, but are fun and have some kind of interesting point. The real point of his equation (and he says this himself) isn’t that it’s mathematically accurate, but that it draws attention to how crazy we humans are about our bodies in general. I quote him from the story: “If I can draw attention to people’s backsides, they may actually take their overall health more seriously. Because you can dress yourself up in a suit, you can put on your makeup and cover up all of nature’s ills and pretend you’re in great shape, but if you stand naked and stare backward into the mirror, you have to confront reality.” He also uses it to make the point that what society considers to be a perfect female ass is actually more like a boy’s ass, biologically speaking and not biologically feasible. The story is about that, not math.
      So climb off your soapbox … this isn’t pseudoscience (something I am actually considered quite a stickler for, which has pissed plenty of people off). It’s a guy finding a goofy way to highlight issues like obesity and society’s unhealthy ideas about body image. Puh-lease.

    9. Matt Heath says:

      “mathematical equation for the perfect human ass” ugh!
      Sorry but this is the sort of PR-lead, formula-pulled-out-of-thin-air “science” journalism that clutters up the worst of the MSM, worsening people’s understanding of what science and maths are. It’s as if Seed hired a blog whose first post linked proudly to a sympathetic piece they had written on homoeopathy or intelligent design.
      The link in my name discusses this sort of thing (and your arse article in particular).

    10. I am neither a Darwinian atheist nor a Fundamentalist bible banger, but a retired physiologist with a new hypothesis for the only matter that has ever been in question – the mechanism by which it took place.
      I have but one question. Will I be able to speak at this new blog?
      “A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable.”

    11. kamaka says:

      “Click Welcome to Culture Dish for an introduction to this blog and its author, Rebecca Skloot, a freelance writer, a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine and a sometimes correspondent for the NPR show RadioLab. She writes feature stories, essays, and reviews for The New York Times and New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover and others, including the PBS television series Nova ScienceNOW, where she’s worked as an on-air correspondent. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in the University of Memphis’s MFA program. Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is forthcoming from Crown next Spring. It tells the story of HeLa — the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture (pictured in the blog’s banner) — the woman those cells came from, and the family she left behind.”
      Besides that, do you have any credentials??
      Haha, bookmarking you NOW

    12. Kevin Schreck says:

      And welcome to you, Ms. Skloot!

    13. Skeptico says:

      Hi Rebecca. I used to read your old blog until about 18 months or so ago when you stopped writing it. I always loved your writing style, so looking forward to some new articles.

    14. bioephemera says:

      Welcome! Great to have you here!

    15. Skloot says:

      Update: Culture Dish’s feed is now live! (Thanks Sb folks!) To subscribe to this blog, just click this link for RSS feed or subscribe to get Culture Dish via email by clicking here.

    16. Skloot says:

      DNLee, that’s a great story, thanks for posting it. I learned about the HeLa story in a very similar way. Be sure to come introduce yourself at the conference, and come to my keynote talk on Friday night, which will be almost entirely about Henrietta Lacks.

    17. Brian X says:

      Oddly enough, my first awareness of Henrietta Lacks came from a Reader’s Digest article in the late 80s. Quite a strange story for a young mind, but I really hope those left who knew her are proud of her legacy.

    18. DNLee says:

      I’m glad you’re telling the Hela Story. I first learned of it in my freshman bio class – Zoology. it was the first time I heard a science professor tell a “story” in class. It really got my attention. I was especially intriqued when he told us she was an African-American woman and her sickness and cell line have done SO much in the way of biomedical research. This may seem trivial, but this was a white professor in a very white classroom (I was one of 3 black students in a hall of 250) at a very white college in middle Tennessee. He wasn’t telling this story for my sake. He was sharing a great story of science. And I like most of the other students there had never heard of a black person in American history make such an impact in medical science research (other than Dr. Charles Drew).
      So, I’m looking forward to the book and to meeting you at the conference.

    19. Eppendork says:

      Welcome – I look forward to your book and the blog…

    20. Skloot says:

      I want one of those shirts too! We should make a batch when the book comes out. People used to write “Long Live Helen Lane!” on bathroom walls and various places … they didn’t know Helen Lane was a pseudonym and that the cells actually came from Henrietta Lacks.
      Thanks for all the kind words about my book and such. I’m happy to see so many HeLa fans here. In coming months, I’ll be posting quite a bit of HeLa related stuff, and asking scientists who’ve worked with HeLa to participate in various things, like telling me about their HeLa research and sending me their HeLa pictures, which I’m compiling into a HeLa website and database. More info on that stuff soon …
      And hopefully I’ll have an RSS feed soon so you can subscribe …
      And Dr. Dave, I know … I’ve been waiting for my book for a decade too … it will be very good to finally hold a copy very soon.

    21. ...tom... says:

      As one of the irregular readers and commenters here at scienceblogs just wanted to say ‘hey there’ and add my welcome to the roll call.
      As someone commented above: ‘spray on condoms’..?? My interest is definitely piqued..!!

    22. Congratulations on your book. Every year in North America there are roughly 200,000 book titles published; half originals, half reprints.
      That you created one of the winning 100,000 new titles — of roughly 100 times as many unacceptable manuscripts, means great success.
      Anyone born has half their genes from a sperm which out-swam all the others, and is conceived, already a winner.
      I shall watch your blogging to see what else you can do which has such great Darwinian Fitness, by analogy, in the plane of ideas. Welcome!

    23. Prof Redfield, you continue to be one of my sheroes. I would love to have one of those shirts, perhaps as a promotion when Rebecca’s book is released?
      I can’t recall if it was in Rebecca’s writing or that of someone else, but it has been calculated that more HeLa cells have been grown than actually populated Ms. Lacks’ entire body.
      I continue to be very humbled by the fact that the gift of Ms. Lacks has contributed to the career development of a great many scientists like us. We are not worthy.

    24. I used to have a t-shirt that said “Henrietta Lacks Lives!”. But people kept asking me who Henrietta was and why she lacked lives.

    25. skyotter says:

      *waves, says “hi”, subscribes*
      and happy New Year!
      –some old guy in Alaska

    26. Hey, pretty cool: I just got a tweet from your publisher publicizing your article today in the NYT:
      It’s good, of course, but I have to say I prefer the earlier one on dog poop DNA.

    27. Dr. Dave says:

      Oh…I guess I’ll just have to change my bookmark…it’s like the old days, when someone moved across country and you had to update their phone number in your address book. Thank the internet gods for RSS….
      Best of luck, and I’ve been waiting almost a decade for that book, so….
      Dr. Dave

    28. It’s awesome that you’re here. I look forward to reading.

    29. alphabitch says:

      Welcome! I too am very much looking forward to the new book, and am very glad you’re back from your blogging hiatus.

    30. w00t Skl00t!
      Welcome to ScienceBlogs!

    31. It SO great to see you at ScienceBlogs and I can’t wait for your book to come out (and meet you at ScienceOnline’09!). For the edification of the peanut gallery, I used HeLa cells exclusively in my doctoral dissertation and for the first paper published in my independent lab career. However, I am deeply embarrassed that I made no mention of Mrs. Lacks and the history of her cervical carcinoma cells in my dissertation. Your 2000 HeLa article in the Johns Hopkins magazine is alone a fabulous piece of science journalism. I am ecstatic that you are bringing this woman’s story to the popular audience and will be advance ordering a good number of copies when the book is released.
      Welcome! What a tremendously fabulous addition you are to ScienceBlogs!

    32. Arlenna says:

      I’m so excited to find out you have a blog! I was also really excited to hear about your book, I read an intro article you wrote for it somewhere, and I am going to get it to have as required reading in my lab. I want to make sure my students know the history of their science and their responsibilities.

    33. Skloot says:

      I know … serious drag Dinty, but the RSS feed isn’t working yet. They tell me it will take a few days. I didn’t realize that or I would have launched a little later! Sorry … will post it as soon as it exists.

    34. Dinty says:

      Can’t find an RSS feed?!

    35. Greg Laden says:

      I am very excited about your book. I’ve told the H.L. story many times and almost never does anyone ever believe me. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it is the way I tell it….

    36. Danimal says:

      Sounds interesting. Added bookmark.

    37. DrugMonkey says:

      w00t to the Skloot! Welcome!
      So glad you snuck in under the deadline to join the 2008’ers who are, objectively, bringing the storm up in this joint.

    38. EastwoodDC says:

      Spray on condoms? Equations for asses?? I am SO subscribing!!! 🙂

    39. chowle says:

      Looks great and sounds quite interesting – – Love those Petri dishes. It will be terrific to see how you feed the blog.

    40. PalMD says:

      Welcome to the collective! I look forward to seeing some more bioethics around here (in addition to Dr. Free Ride, occasionally others, and sometimes me).

    41. Welcome Rebecca! This looks like fun!

    42. Carl Zimmer says:

      Time to update the blogroll. Congratulations on the move.

    43. Welcome to our dysfunctional little family, Rebecca! I’ve loved it here and hope you have just as great an experience!

    44. Ian says:

      Welcome Rebecca. There’s always room for another sci-blogger with a weird name, and what could be more unusual than Rebecca?
      You have to update your photo. I followed your links to the quicksand and the showering articles, and you’re evidently using the same photo you were in 2005. That’s entirely unacceptable here, where the bloggers appear to change their photo every few months (I suspect it’s to prevent religious fanatics and post-modern Luddites from zeroing in on them).
      But keep up the good work. Us sci-addicts can never get enough good stories.

    45. Thanks all. The subscription button is apparently coming — I just heard from ScienceBlogs central that it will take a few days to get the RSS feed going … will post details when you can subscribe. In the meantime, bookmark! 😉 Thanks!

    46. arvind says:

      Congrats on the move to scienceblogs. Good luck with your book too. Hope it comes out on time and sells well.
      *now off to check your old archives*

    47. Nancy Boutin says:

      Love this blog. Where is the subscription button?

    48. Coturnix says:

      Welcome to the family, SciBling!

    49. Brendan says:

      Fantastic news. Welcome on board, Rebecca. And congrats on finishing the book.

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    The Henrietta Lacks Foundation strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without their knowledge or consent.