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2019 Essay Competition Winners

The Official Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group / 2019 Essay Competition Winners

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 6th Annual Essay and Video Competition.  This year we received a record number of amazing submissions.  Our judges were unanimous in suggesting that theirs was an extremely difficult task given the sheer number of outstanding submissions.  Teachers and parents, you can be very proud!

This is what we found:  the best essays (high school) and letters (middle school) reflected not only accurate information about Mrs. Lacks’ story, but a thoughtful interrogation of ideas and the definite presence of voice.  The authors of the winning submissions had something important to say and communicated it in the pages of their manuscripts forcefully and often creatively.

The names of the winners and honorable mentions are listed below.  You can also read the winning submissions.

 First, Second, and Third Place Winners

First Place | High School
Mary Kumcheva,
Eastern Technical High School

First Place | Middle School
Joshua Adams,
Southampton Middle School

First Place | Special Needs
DeSean Dennis,
Claremont High School

Second Place | High School
Adam Elyounsi
Eastern Technical High School

Second Place | Middle School
Lucinda Hobson
Mount Washington Middle School

Abby Mangan
Octorara Jr. Sr. High School, Atglen, PA

Second Place | Special Needs
Lashawn Gallatin
Claremont High School

Third Place | High School
Mary Robeyko
Eastern Technical High School

Third Place | Middle School
Abdul’l-Karim Nash
Mount Washington School

Third Place Special Needs
Rashad Foster,
Claremont High School


Honorable Mentions

High School

Alaina Davis, Octorara Area High School
Tristen Bryce Stallworth, Eastern Technical High School
Kieran Bethke, Eastern Technical High School
Jay’na Johnson, Eastern Technical High School
Sydney Gosnell, Eastern Technical High School
Fiona Tolentino, Eastern Technical High School
Mikiya Skywalker, Dundalk High School
Tiffany Thomas, Eastern Technical High School
Samantha Klekner, Olentangy Liberty High School
Brenda Jenkins, Claremont High School

Middle School

Michael Koch, Southampton Middle School
Alexandra Crimi Octorara Jr. Sr. High School, Atglen, PA
Nicholas Ryan Anderson, Southampton Middle School, Bel Air, MD

First Place High School


Mary Kumcheva
Eastern Technical High School, Essex, MD
11th Grade

Henrietta Lacks: Cells Worthy of the History Books

Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Each of these individuals changed the world in a unique way. For each of these household names, there is another figure that has had a profound impact on the world yet is widely unknown among the general population. One such individual has impacted medicine immensely. The medical field has made great strides since the early twentieth century. Many advancements were the direct result of HeLa, an immortal cell line developed from a cervical cancer sample belonging to a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Many people remember scientists, like Dr. George Gey, for their work with HeLa cells, but it is just as important to remember the woman behind the cells. Henrietta Lacks’ cells caused the invention of the polio vaccine, new discoveries about chromosomes and the human genome, as well as the development of methods for freezing cells, and for these great contributions to medicine and humanity, Henrietta Lacks should be remembered today.

HeLa provided the large quantity of cells needed to conduct research for the polio vaccine. In the first half of the twentieth century, polio ravaged the United States, affecting people from all walks of life. Even the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had polio. When a researcher created a vaccination for polio, regulation required that he test it to ensure that it did not have any negative side effects for humans. HeLa cells, which were extremely susceptible to the virus, low in cost, and easy to reproduce, served as the perfect cell medium for conducting the widespread testing that the vaccination required. The number of polio cases declined greatly after the approval of the vaccine and millions of lives were saved. A disease that, eighty years ago, was extremely common, has now been almost completely eradicated in the United States, thanks to Henrietta Lacks.

In addition to polio, HeLa has been used to find the cure for a plethora of other ailments. HeLa has also impacted fields other than virology. The field of genetics used HeLa to make some of its biggest discoveries, such as the organization of genetic material. The existence of chromosomes, structures that store DNA, was discovered years before Lacks’ death, but scientists could not properly count the number of chromosomes in a human cell. In 1953, HeLa cells were combined with other chemicals which separated the cells’ chromosomes. For the first time, scientists could count that standard human cells possessed 46 chromosomes. From this discovery, which became a foundation for most future genetic research, scientists were able to detect, determine, and diagnose different genetic conditions. With better understanding of conditions like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, doctors were able to provide better care to individuals with these conditions. Numerous lives have been improved because of the advancements in genetic research which HeLa made possible.

The process of freezing cells, which was discovered using HeLa, had impact across various disciplines. Cell freezing was used to better understand the process of cell division. Once scientists understood how one cell became two, they could understand what could go wrong during the process. They were able to discover spontaneous transformation, a phenomenon where a cell instantly turns malignant. This enabled scientists to provide treatment to patients whose cells were acting erratically and causing damage to their healthy tissue. Frozen cells were also able to be transported great distances, which enabled scientists across the world to study the same cell samples. Increased connectivity and collaboration made greater opportunity for new scientific discoveries.

In the nearly seventy years since Henrietta Lacks’ death, the contemporary world has been deeply affected by her cells. Henrietta Lacks’ legacy includes significant contributions to medicine, like the polio vaccine, discoveries in genetics, and the procedure of freezing cells, but one cannot list all the ways that HeLa cells have caused or influenced scientific discoveries. People are impacted by Lacks every day, and they deserve to know who she was. Henrietta Lacks was a loving wife and mother whose unique cells caused suffering and her untimely demise, but ultimately saved countless lives. With her deep connection to the field of medicine, Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered alongside the great figures of history.

Second Place High School

Adam Elyounsi
Eastern Technical High School
11th Grade


Unsung Hero

Despite not even having a high school education, Henrietta Lacks has made more contributions to medicine than some scientists have in their whole career. This all happened when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her cancer cells were taken, unbeknownst to her, for experimentation. What would happen after this is anomalous to the extreme as Henrietta Lacks’ cell culture would continue to divide with no end, enabling scientists to conduct a vast amount of experiments that continue to impact the world to this day. Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to medicine were vital to developing vaccinations for diseases such as polio, but her story also brings and spreads awareness to the topic of ethics in science that everyone should remember.

There are a multitude of vaccinations that have been developed thanks to the help of the HeLa cells. An example of this is the polio vaccination developed by Jonas Salk. Initially Jonas Salk had trouble testing for a vaccine because obtaining cells to test used to be extremely expensive and hard to maintain, but with the addition of HeLa cells Henrietta Lacks was able to give Salk a way to test his cells in an efficient way due to the HeLa cells growing with the amount of culture provided to them, effectively being immortal. In addition, HPV or Human Papilloma Virus vaccinations were able to be developed again due to Harald zur Hausen’s ability to test them on HeLa cells. Since then, globally polio has been basically eradicated due to the vaccination, and HPV vaccines have helped millions of girls in preventing cervical cancer. It is kind of ironic how the cells were obtained from cervical cancer but were a big factor in developing a vaccine to prevent a form of it. In a different world these vaccinations may have not happened if Henrietta Lacks’ cells weren’t used as testing, due to the inefficient nature of the other cells, and based on the global magnitude of the impact of these cells it is clear to that Ms. Lacks’ contributions to medicine are extremely significant.

The next aspect of Mrs. Lacks’s legacy is with the morals and ethics of science. Before there were vaccinations for HPV and polio, there was a mother who was seriously ill due to her cancer, and a scientist named George Gey who took her cells without her permission and created a monopoly of cell distribution being sold by the millions. Henrietta Lacks could’ve had a dramatic benefit from even receiving 1% of the portion of the money, but even that wasn’t given to her. In fact, her family wasn’t even aware of this testing even a decade after Henrietta Lacks passed away from cancer. But it wasn’t just Mrs. Lacks who was impacted with medical ailments, it was also her husband Day, who had various sexually transmitted diseases and infections and even her daughter Deborah, who passed away from a stroke after all the stress from uncovering the secrets of her mother’s connection with the eradication of diseases. In addition, this experimentation took priority and saving Mrs. Lacks’ life was more on the back burner, impacting her children mentally such as Zakariyya, who was born while Henrietta had the cancer and never got the chance to really know his mother before she passed away. The impact on the family is one that should be brought to more light when mentioning the name of Henrietta because it cost the lives of this family to save the lives of millions.

Despite being unintentional Henrietta Lacks managed to immortalize herself as a figure in modern science. While the world has been changed on a global scale thanks to the help HeLa cells have had on testing vaccination, it is important to remember the impact it had on the Lacks family. Without many security measures in health care such as the HIPPA Act, Gey was able to take the cells of Henrietta Lacks without consent, reap no consequences, and develop a monopoly. If the underlying story of Henrietta Lacks is made more aware to the public, it may cause the public and law makers to have a sharper eye on ethics in medicine. So, while Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to science had the ripple effect of saving millions of lives, it is important for society to remember the immoral origin of which that feat was accomplished.

Third Place High School

Mary Robeyko
Eastern Technical High School, Essex, MD
11th Grade

How We Take Others Contributions for Granted

Recognition is an essential aspect of society today. After all, society is drawn to popularity. We give out recognition to those who made an impact in society. We know of famous scientists such as Einstein, Newton, and Tesla. We know of famous actors and actresses such as Aniston and Depp. But do we know of Henrietta Lacks? She was a low income African-American woman that would end up saving the lives of millions and deserves recognition just as much as those women on our television screens. Henrietta Lacks helped further research through the cancerous cells that killed her, but her cells saved the lives of millions making it crucial that she and her contributions to society are remembered today.

When Lacks was first diagnosed with cervical cancer she didn’t bother to tell her family. She was a hardworking woman with a selfless character. She was never one to ask, instead she gave to all she had to help the other people around her. She was not her main priority—she didn’t even take care of herself when she knew the cancer was killing her. Lacks continued to do her daily tasks and support her family, even when most of her strength was fighting her cancer. Though her life was hard, she never complained. Eventually she ended up in the hospital because the cancer was making it impossible to continue to live. While at Johns Hopkins Hospital, she had her cells removed from her body without consent. Dr. George Gey was a cancer researcher who had been trying to grow human cells outside of the body. It turned out that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were the only ones out of thousands that would continue to grow. Henrietta Lacks died not knowing they were growing her cells in a laboratory and what effect they would have on the world. While she was alive she was an unknown, and no one even knew that the HeLa cells were from her. That is why it is critical to remember her as someone important today, somebody who made a tremendous difference.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells, also known as HeLa cells, contributed significantly to modern medicine. Because her cells could grow outside the body and reproduce infinitely, researchers could test the effect of different medicines, procedures, and treatments on cells in the human body. Research could be done to see how certain things could affect human health without having to risk the patient’s health. Because scientists and researchers no longer had to spend so much time trying to actually grow the cells, they had time to actually perform experiments. One of the greatest contributions was the Salk vaccine or IPV (Inactivated Polio Vaccine). During the polio epidemic, HeLa cells were used to test the polio vaccine that later protected millions. Scientists went on to research about cancer, zero gravity, viruses, and DNA. During their research, they figured out that by isolating specific cells they could start cell lines. In vitro fertilization and cloning arose from this idea of isolating single cells. Lacks not only saved and continues to save millions from death—her cells are now being used to create life as well. HeLa cells also helped with creating diagnoses for many types of genetic disorders. By using Lacks’ cells, they determined the correct number of chromosomes and could use this to understand genetics like never before. Even today people still use HeLa cells to continue research. Anti-cancer drugs are currently being developed from the information HeLa cells have provided.

It is crucial to remember Henrietta for her contribution to research and our health. However, some believe that she does not deserve the recognition because she was not the one to actually do the research and make those significant discoveries. While this may be true, those discoveries made by scientists would not have been possible without Henrietta Lacks. Using her cells, scientists made many discoveries at the right time to avoid tremendous amounts of death. You might be alive today because of Mrs. Lacks. We give recognition to youtubers and Instagram models that post pictures of themselves and do little more. Though I am not looking down on them, is it fair that more people know of them in comparison to Mrs. Lacks? Mrs. Lacks’ cells allowed us, as a society, to progress and develop. Through her cells we save and create life every day. Isn’t it only fair to remember her today?

Henrietta Lacks was a woman who was wronged her whole life—even her cells were taken from her without consent. However, her cells are what saved and still save millions of people and help make incredible discoveries that help the lives of people today. It is crucial to remember her contributions in society today. If we can ignore the contributions Mrs. Lacks had on saving lives, what it the point of giving recognition to others who simply provide entertainment? Henrietta Lacks should be remembered because she has made a difference in this world though her cells—her cells were the missing piece to the puzzle that helped scientists make countless incredible discoveries.

First Place Middle School

Joshua Adams
Southampton Middle School, Bel Air, Maryland
7th Grade

Dear Mrs. Lacks,

I would like to say thank you to you and your family for the contribution you have made to science. Your cells have changed so many lives, and because of you scientists have been able to make many new discoveries and help so many people. Your contribution to science has not only affected my life, but many others as well.

I can’t imagine how very difficult it must have been to be diagnosed with cervical cancer at the young age of thirty-one. It must have been even more tragic to suffer in the hospital for over eight months.  After you died, Dr. George Otto Gey used cells from your tumor to research cures and treatments for diseases. He was the one to observe that your cells were essentially immortal. This allowed him to create a cell line from one of your cells and dubbed the cells HeLa, derived from your name Henrietta Lacks. This meant that scientists would be able to use, research and test your immortal cells forever. Then a scientist named Jonas Salk used the HeLa strain to help develop the polio vaccine.

Thanks to you and your cells, so many research projects and new discoveries have been made. Without your cells, we wouldn’t be where we are today and would be very behind in our medical research on almost every front.

Your legacy should be very well known worldwide for what your cells have done for the cell world. Sadly, when I first heard about you, I had no clue who you were. But the research I have done on you has made me realize how amazing your story is, and how everyone should know your name.

 I hope you’ll be happy to know that you have received a posthumous honorary degree granted by the Morgan State University, because of your contribution to the biomedical field. Also, your family has been honored at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. However, nothing will ever be enough for what you and your cells have done to save so many people. I wish you could have been recognized while you were still alive.

Because of your cells and the research scientists have done on them, my great Aunt Marleen was able to live much longer than anyone expected her to when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Hopefully, the continued research with your cells can help prevent cancer and maybe even cure some types of cancer.

Thank you for all you have done for our world. I promise to share my knowledge of your amazing story for the rest of my life. I honestly believe your contribution to the medical world is absolutely astounding! Thank you for your immortal cells!

First Place Middle School

Abby Mangan

Octorara Jr. Sr. High School, Atglen, PA
7th Grade

November 20th, 2018

Dear Henrietta Lacks,

       Hi, my name is Abby. I have been learning a lot about you in my class. I learned that your tumor cells are the first immortal cells that scientists have ever found in the human body. Your cells have the power to multiply rapidly and continue to reproduce and live on forever! This enables scientists to test on your cells without hurting living people or animals. You have no idea about any of this occurring, and I believe you deserve to know your impact on the world.

       Your doctor took a cell sample from your tumor without your permission while you were in treatment. He delivered this sample to a scientist named Dr. George Gey for his own experimental work. They had all expected for your cells to die after a few days, as all the other samples had. Instead, after a few minutes, the scientists watched in amazement as the Petri dish filled up with purple jelly-like cells! They were astonished by their discovery of your cells! They were so amazed by what your cells could do, that they named these immortal cells, The HeLa cells, after your first and last name.

       Now, in 2018, your cells continue to impact people’s lives. My Papa had cancer a long time ago. I learned that, using your cells, doctors were able to help find treatments for this cancer and many other cancers and illnesses. Scientists used samples of your cells to test how the human body will react to different kinds of medicine. When they found a treatment with very little effects to the cells, they knew that the same effects will happen in a living body. With the help of your cells, my Papa is happy and well today!

       Your cells have helped with more than just cancer; they helped find vaccines to prevent deadly illnesses like polio and HPV. You are more than deserving of knowing what your cells have done for so many people, including my family. I hope that someday your cells can help find a cure for cancer once and for all. Thank you!                                                                               


Abby Mangan

Second Place Middle School

Lucinda Hobson

Mount Washington Middle School, Baltimore, MD

7th Grade


Dear Mrs. Henrietta Lacks,

I am referring to you as formally as I am because I feel any other way would be rude. You were disrespected enough in your short lifetime. Cells that may have the secret to an immortal life were taken from your body without your consent, and only long after you died was your family finally informed about the test international scientist had been doing using your cells. Now you can see why I am being so formal. I want to show you the respect you deserve but didn’t receive.

Mrs. Lacks, I regret to inform you that you and your family have received little to no recognition for these discoveries. Your relatives should be entitled to a portion of the money that has been made from selling your HeLa cells, but so far, they have been denied that entitlement—which I have believe is ethically, if not legally, wrong. I mean, just casually taking cells from a patient without the patient’s permission simply to win a childish competition to find cells that could thrive in a lab outside the body, is wrong on too many levels to count. I can just hear them now: “I’m gonna find’em first!” “No, I am!” Foolish, and disrespectful. Only decades later, after you died, all of this information was released.

Mrs. Lacks, I’d be furious if I were you. I wonder, if you’d lived, would you be mad? Would you have held a grudge? You’d have every right to. But, I also hope you would be proud.

While your cells may have been and tested without your permission, consider this: millions of people might be dead without them because the cells removed from your cervical cancer tumor contained the secret to developing medicine for treating everything from polio, to STDs, to Parkinson’s disease. In fact, I have a relative who suffers from Parkinson’s. Without his medication, developed using HeLa cells, life would be a lot more difficult for him. What’s more, Mrs. Lacks, your cells were used to treat multiple cancers, including the very type of cancer that you were diagnosed with. I know that you wouldn’t want others to suffer the same abdominal pain that you endured for a few months of your life. Your cells have gone to space. Amazingly, they are still alive today.

So, Mrs. Lacks, even though you were disrespected by the doctors who took your cells without your permission, I hope you would be proud that a myriad of good things came from the stolen cells.

In conclusion, Mrs. Lacks, even if your life was short, and barely anyone knows your name, we, the children of Baltimore, Maryland, would continue sharing your legacy. How your cells saved modern medicine. You, Henrietta Lacks, and your legendary cells will live on. This will truly be the most interesting case in medical history: Henrietta Lacks of Roanoke, Virginia, and the immortal life of HeLa.


Lucinda Hobson

Third Place Middle School

Abdu’l- Karim Nash

Mount Washington Middle School, Baltimore, MD
7th Grade


Dear Henrietta Lacks,

Henrietta Lacks that was your name, the name that the doctors discarded, threw away.

A medical breakthrough a racial let down, black the color of the skin couldn’t see through but could see in.

Breast Cancer. My first-hand experience, Grandma lived through. Luckily she’s still here to share her experience; she’s one of the survivors.

Drowning in the truths cells ever growing never know when to stop, Spontaneous Generation making cells into something they’re not.

Ms. Henrietta, they never asked were you okay? You came to the hospital for help, they took your cells away.

If a white Henrietta had walked in, what then? Treat her with respect, take care of her ails, ask for her cells with permission.

Recognition is that what Dr. Gey wanted. He took your cells, discovered award winning things, but left you in the dark—in an unmarked grave, rotting away. He made money by what else did he do that day?

Radiation, Burning, Slicing three ways you can treat Cancer, but killing the problem not fixing it.

How many more will have reaped the rewards while your family remains in the poverty, remains poor?

Ms. Henrietta, they never asked were you okay? You came to the hospital for help; they took your cells away.

If parts of you were cultivated in a lab trillions of pieces made into whatever the Doctor, Scientist, or Biologist wants Millions were saved and made who again. But what about that rift, that hole within? When will you begin?

Sincerely, Abdu’l- Karim Nash