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'The Living Book Project' Unites Students Across Suffolk at SBU

Project grew from a partnership between Three Village Central School District and Stony Brook University.

Students from across Suffolk County joined Three Village students on Friday to bring a book to life.

Through “The Living Book Project,” a diverse summit of more than 200 students convened at Stony Brook University’s Wang Center to discuss a work that they had all recently finished reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

The book tells the story of a woman who died in 1951 at the age of 30 after suffering from an aggressive form of cancer; doctors harvested a tissue sample without her knowledge, which yielded cells that came to be known as HeLa cells. Those cells, according to Skloot’s work, have helped lead scientists to major discoveries in the areas of gene mapping, cloning, the development of polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization, and more. But yet Henrietta’s family knew nothing of these developments until more than two decades after her death – and hasn’t reaped any of the benefits of the billion-dollar biological materials business which grew from her very own cells.

Led by educators from Stony Brook University and the Three Village Central School District, students explored the story from a variety of perspectives: not just science, medicine, health literacy, and bioethics, but also journalism, art, and culture. Students had read the book in a variety of settings – whether through English classes, science classes, or art classes, or even as an independent study – and came together to share those experiences.

“Even though they read the same text, they had different experiences digesting it,” said Susanne Mendelson, a Three Village school board trustee and one of the creators of the program. “They were able to come together and share their differences around the one central point, the text. It was pretty amazing and exciting.”

RELATED: View a gallery of student artwork inspired by The Living Book Project.

But beyond the issues of science, ethics, and medicine, The Living Book Project emphasized one more issue: diversity.

“We wanted the students to have an experience that got beyond” their everyday experiences, said Dr. Al Jordan, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Clinical Associate Professor Stony Brook, another one of the project's creators. “We wanted to show, to demonstrate ... that diversity works. All of them in little groups were working towards the same goal. You don’t always get that opportunity in terms of diversity, especially on Long Island.”

Elizabeth Kelso, a Ward Melville High School English teacher who was also a co-creator of the program, said she suggested The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks be studied for its potential for multi-disciplinary study.

“The Living Book Project was imagined as a way to bring people together to talk about a text, to talk about a story, to talk about a woman’s life and to realize the ripples one life makes,” Kelso said. “But my main desire was to create a day where people from different communities – who are really people of the same community – could come together to meet each other, to talk to one another and hopefully come to understand lives other than our own.”

The event, which brought together students from schools including Riverhead, Three Village, William Floyd, Wyandanch, Brentwood, and Central Islip, Amityville, and Longwood, was funded through a Presidential SEED mini-grant (“Students Empowered by Embracing Diversity”) from Stony Brook University and was facilitated via a partnership between the Three Village Central School District and Stony Brook University. Mendelson said its creators hope to make The Living Book Project an annual event.

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