By: Tzvi Levitin  | 

From the President’s Desk: YCSA — Thoughts on Immortality

On the second day of freshman orientation back in August 2013, I walked into Belfer Hall for the first time. The whirlwind first 24 hours of my Yeshiva University experience had been a blur of new faces, informational sessions, and meet and greets, and I was beginning to wonder if all of this stuff was wholly necessary. The reason I thought I came to college – the promise of an education that would pave the path toward medical school or an engineering degree – had been buried under counseling center pamphlets, student life swag, and maps of Washington Heights.

The meeting in Belfer was a First Year Writing orientation for honors students. The writing professors sat scattered among the students, and Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, the director of the Honors Program, stood at the front of the room. He told us that several sections of the introductory writing course would be reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book I had never heard of, and, as it wasn’t assigned for any of my science courses, had already decided I didn’t care about. In my mind, I had already consigned my First Year Writing course to the collective of humanities classes I would tolerate, not enjoy.

Then Dr. Cwilich began his presentation. The book, it turned out, was about a black woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951, and whose biopsied cancer cells were the first human cells to survive immortally in culture. Her cell line has proven invaluable to countless scientific breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine, cancer research, and AIDS medication. As Dr. Cwilich spoke, I realized that I had used Henrietta’s cell line – HeLa cells – in research I did in an oncology lab mere weeks before arriving on campus. A book about biology that might be relevant to my career goals? I was hooked.

But as I discovered throughout the next few weeks, the story is not merely one of scientific achievements. Skloot takes pain to seek out Henrietta’s family, who knew hardly anything about the extent of her cells’ importance. Along the way, the author confronts religion, race relations, and the ethical dilemmas of science as she endeavors to give Henrietta the legacy she deserves.

The Immortal Life acted as a springboard from which I launched into my own personal trajectory through the liberal arts. It taught me about the imperatives of writing: lending voice to the voiceless, making sense of complex ideas, building bridges between communities ordinarily isolated from one another. It turned my attention to the crossroads between medicine and the humanities, an area that has since become one of my deepest passions. It ultimately led to my honors thesis, a screenplay about Rosalind Franklin, another woman whose contributions to the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure went largely unnoticed.

Fundamentally, Henrietta Lacks’ story is one of faith, dedication, and the search for justice. It is a story of empathy, which is to say, a story of humanity.

In a way, it’s also a story of us, Yeshiva University students. We all know David Foster Wallace’s spiel about the liberal arts: the value of viewing the world through a lens of compassion and complexity, the power of connecting with others and sharing ideas, etc. etc. But it’s only now that I’ve walked out of my last undergraduate class that I realize the extent to which my experiences here have changed the way I see the world.

The thing about HeLa cells is that they only survive and grow under proper conditions. They need just the right amount of moisture, a constant temperature of a toasty 37 C, and a certain balance of the nutrients surrounding them. When everything is just right, they form a colony, a microcosm, a community.

As I reflect on my time at YU, I think about the extraordinary environment I’m leaving behind. I think about the spell that will break when I graduate next week. Because this place is magic, and I truly mean that; it’s Narnia, it's Hogwarts, it's Alagaësia. It alters the very fabric of time and matter: you look up one day and realize the stranger borrowing your pencil has transformed into your best friend; your professors have charmed you into being passionate about things you could’ve sworn you didn’t care about, gravity itself has shifted and the world suddenly seems somehow larger and smaller at the same time. This place exists outside of the timeline of “what’s next?”, outside of the mainstream quid pro quo mentality, outside of the zero-sum game we’ll face when we leave.

As I tend to do when all things come to an end, I find myself searching for circles. I’m desperate for signs of completion, perfection, and wholeness. I tell myself it’s fitting that I’ll eat at the same restaurant after graduation as I did when I came to New York almost six years ago to interview for YU. I tell myself how profound it is that the first book I read in college was about a woman whose impact on medicine goes unrecognized, and now four years later I’m writing a senior thesis about another woman who deserves a legacy for her contributions to science.

But then I realize that this isn’t really about me. Henrietta Lacks’ original cells no longer exist; the nucleotides and peptides and phosphates that made up her cells have long since been replaced by new molecules. But it’s their genetic code, their continuity that stretches back to Henrietta’s conception back in 1919, that gives HeLa cells their significance. My legacy does not lie in any contribution I’ve made as a student, a Commentator writer, or a student council president. The legacy lies in the very fabric of liberal arts college, and the more specific Jewish traditions of YU. Generations of individuals before me have left their marks on this place, and the impacts these people had continue to be felt today. This legacy has existed since long before I got here, and it will continue long after I’m gone. It’s not a circle; there is nothing to seal, nothing to complete. I haven’t finished yet, and neither has Yeshiva University.

Within these walls, this chaotic Petri dish of accountants and writers, lawyers and professors, doctors and rabbis, we exchange the elixir of life. Within these walls we are immortal.