The Essential Role of Specific Books in the Scientific Journey of Researchers

Nitya Gannavarapu, MSc.  

Female hand pulling book from bookshelf
Source: DimaBerlin/

Researchers are the pioneers that continue to expand the vast landscape of scientific exploration and advance our understanding of the world and shape us as a society. The journey of each researcher is often characterized by countless hours of experimentation, analysis, and collaboration. However, one often overlooked aspect that shapes their trajectory is the books that they read.  

Specific books are, in many ways, the unsung heroes of scientific progress. They inspire, educate, and guide researchers on their quest to uncover the mysteries of the universe. From shaping scientific interests to providing in-depth knowledge and expanding horizons, these books play a crucial role in the scientific journey of researchers. In an era of information overload, it’s essential for aspiring scientists and seasoned researchers alike to carefully select books that will guide them towards their scientific goals, ultimately contributing to the collective knowledge which will benefit humanity.  

Books that made an impact on the researchers  

Given the time of the year, we took a moment to ask our leaders, our members, at ASHG, about books that resonated and impacted their lives. Following our survey, the two books we want to highlight include “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot and “The Emperor of All Maladies’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Both of these books do a fantastic job of providing a bird’s eye view of shaping a scientific field while examining the poignant and intricate relationship between science, ethics, and the human experience – things we, as scientists, must consider over the course of their own respective journeys.  

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot weaves a compelling narrative that intertwines the scientific legacy of Henrietta Lacks with the ethical and personal dimensions of her story. In 1951, Henrietta’s cancer cells were unknowingly taken during a medical procedure, leading to the development of HeLa cells, a cell line that proved to be unique in its ability to replicate indefinitely. Skloot explores the far-reaching impact of HeLa cells on medical research, detailing their role in significant breakthroughs, such as the development of the polio vaccine and advancements in cancer studies.  

As the conversation and book delves into the ethical complexities surrounding the use of Henrietta’s cells without her or her family’s consent, we, as readers are tasked with navigating the emotional journey of the Lacks family as they discover the immortality of Henrietta’s cells and grapple with the ethical implications of her unwitting contribution to scientific progress. Through a skillful blend of scientific exploration and human storytelling, the book raises thought-provoking questions about medical ethics, racial disparities, and the intersection of scientific progress with the lives of individuals and their families.  

 As narrated by one of our leaders/ researchers –  

 “As a human geneticist and genetic epidemiologist who works with data from human participants, reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks resonated so much with me while I was a graduate student and now serves as a reminder of one of the many reasons why health disparities still prevail today. As researchers, we are morally obligated to conduct our research using the high ethical standards, in an equitable fashion, and in a way that participants can be partners who contribute to deciding what questions are pursued and how results are interpreted and reported back to the community.” 

The Emperor of All Maladies  

While we conceptualize the importance of ethics in our scientific world building,  Mukherjee takes us on a different journey–one exploring the history, science, and social  impact of cancer as a whole, in The Emperor of All Maladies, further pushing us to truly  define what costs we are willing to pay to mitigate the losses of evolution and human  diseases. Mukherjee skillfully traces the disease’s historical roots, from ancient times to modern understanding, shedding light on early misconceptions and the gradual evolution of cancer treatments. The book delves into the intricate scientific details of cancer, unraveling its complexities at the cellular level, and chronicles the progression of treatments, from surgery and radiation to contemporary approaches like targeted therapies like immunotherapies.  

 Interwoven within this scientific narrative are the personal stories of patients, doctors, and researchers; providing a human perspective on the emotional and societal facets of cancer. Having the chance to read about the broader cultural impact of cancer, discussing its influence on societal attitudes and medical practices further cultivates the reader to understand the delicate balance of the challenges faced, but also pushes a hope for the potential to breakthrough and achieve what persistently seems like an endless conflict.  

Our thinking Cap  

Both books give us an insight into the challenges faced in scientific history and drive us to the continual rallying between societal implications and improvements. We implore you, the readers, to take a moment to think about a book that has shaped you this far and reach out to us, so we can continue sharing and learning from each other as we build our knowledge ecosystem!  

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