Calhoun to Host Community Panel Discussion Culminating “Big Read” Project


Last fall, Calhoun Community College kicked off its participation in the nationwide “Big Read” project, designed to encourage shared reading by having the college and surrounding community read and discuss the same book.  “Modeled after the National Endowment  for the Arts, Calhoun’s ‘Big Read’ aims to engage students, faculty, staff and the community in an energetic, robust, and academically-driven reading and sharing experience,” commented Leah Vallely, Calhoun faculty member and coordinator of the Big Read project.

Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members have spent the last few months reading the book selected for Calhoun’s “Big Read” program, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  On Tuesday, February 19, 2013, this year’s program will culminate with a panel discussion on the medical, legal and ethical issues associated with the legacy of Lacks. The panel discussion will take place at 10am in the Health Sciences Building on Calhoun’s Decatur campus.

In 1951, Lacks, a 31- year old poor young black woman who had once been a tobacco farmer, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical
cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Lacks died as a result of the disease, however, cells taken from her during  her illness were used - without her knowledge or permission – to develop the first immortal cell line. The cells, called HeLa (named from the first two letters of her first and last names), became one of the most important tools in medical research, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more.  Lacks, the person who was the source of these cells, was virtually unknown, and her family was never informed about what had been achieved using her cells.

Although their mother’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, the Lacks family has received nothing from those cell lines, and cannot even afford health insurance today. The book tells the stories of HeLa and of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants, especially her daughter, Deborah, who was consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. At the same time it traces the history of cell research and examines the ethical and legal issues raised by this research

Panelists selected to lead the discussion include Kenneth Anderson, dean of Calhoun’s Humanities and Social Sciences division and a nationally certified counselor; Parvathy Bhooshanan, Ph.D., Calhoun English instructor; Jennifer Gibbs, a board certified nurse practitioner and member of the Calhoun nursing faculty; Parker Griffith, M.D., former U.S. representative for Alabama, oncologist and founder of the Huntsville Cancer Treatment Center; Dr. Adam Hott, coordinator of Educational Outreach for the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology; Mary Scott Hunter, member of the Alabama Board of Education and a local attorney; local news anchor  Liz Hurley ; Calhoun nursing student Connie Jensen; Dr. Thalia Love, coordinator of Developmental English and Reading at Calhoun; Bret McGill, dean of the Health Sciences division at Calhoun; and Necia Nichols, chair of the Calhoun’s Biology department.

Calhoun’s participation in the “Big Read” is one of a number of activities outlined in the college’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a major element of its accreditation process.  During the college’s reaccreditation process, faculty and staff identified Academic Reading Comprehensive as the focus of its QEP.

The QEP outlines two over-arching goals consistent with both Calhoun’s mission and an extensive literature review of the influence of reading comprehension on academic learning and success at the postsecondary level. Students will improve their comprehension of course-specific readings in reading-intensive courses through improved reading skills and increased engagement in academic reading.

Vallely says that the college is already planning for participation in the 2013-14 Big Read program, which will feature the book, The Bridge to San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.  For more information on the Big Read or Calhoun’s QEP, contact Leah Vallely at 256-890-4758 or by email at

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