Winners in The Henrietta Lacks Foundation design contest

First things first: Congratulations to Holly Gaskamp (hollycopter) and Michael Lombardi (Amoeba Mike)! Let me explain. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind while planning for the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) held April 2-6 in Orlando, Florida. Having been invited by author Rebecca Skloot to serve on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, we used our recently-awarded 501(c)(3) status (non-profit charity) to host an exhibitor's booth at the meeting. Given the very short timeline between this IRS ruling and the meeting, I turned to you - dear readers - for graphic design expertise to fashion buttons and T-shirts to award at the meeting booth to promote the mission of the Foundation: "Helping those who've unknowingly made important contributions to science." Well, we were fortunate to receive a wave of entries into our contest and two designers were selected to imprint their designs on official HeLa Foundation paraphernalia. The first entry ended up being among the top two: this from Holly Gaskamp, an Austin, Texas-based designer who freelances professionally as HollyCopter Design and works a day job as a designer for a local television station. Alerted by her boyfriend, a chemistry graduate student at Southern Methodist University and loyal reader of our blog, Holly came up with several designs the very first day of the call for entries.
"I don't know anything about chemistry really and I have no idea what HeLa immunofluorescence is but I thought I could try anyways!," said Holly.
Holly came up with several designs in response to our request for 1) "I [heart] HeLa" and "Thank You HeLa" buttons and 2) a HeLa T-shirt that made use of the HeLa immunofluorescence image made by Dr. Omar Quintero and used in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The blogger with Holly Gaskamp's HeLa T-shirt design at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting, 3 April 2011, Orlando, FL USA. Photo: Serena Stockwell @OncologyTimes

The first round of designs were fabulous but ScienceOnline2011 organizing goddess, Karyn Traphagen, reminded me that regardless of who does the design, the fluorescence micrograph might be difficult for a T-shirt maker to print digitally. (Hence why I put out a call for people who know more about this than I.)

Shirt by Holly Gaskamp, HollyCopter Design, Austin, TX

So, Holly came back with a vectorized, four-color design based on the four fluorophores that Omar used on his HeLa cells. The result is being held above by yours truly at the exhibitor booth and shown here in greater detail. The reverse of the shirt then reads simply We (Rebecca Skloot, her assistant Renee Coale, my wife, and I) liked this main image so much that we decided to also use it for one of the four sets of buttons. Holly also fashioned a heart using the same colors as the vectorized cells. These are shown here on my labcoat to demonstrate the contrast (yes, I still own a labcoat - it protects my clothes from coffee I might spill while working at the computer.).

HeLa buttons by Holly Gaskamp. HollyCopter Design, Austin, TX. (

Let me just say this - Holly handled my back-and-forth communications as professionally as if I were a paying client. At my count, she provided 19 images, with each revision within 12 hours of my suggestions or requests.  Then, after enduring my repeated questions and refinements, she offered to produce any other promotional materials that we might have needed at the exhibit booth. Wow. And that's for pro bono work from someone who's not a scientist but just wanted to do this for fun. So - if you ever, ever need to contract with a freelancer to get graphics done, be sure to think about While we were fielding multiple other submissions, one stood out from Michael Lombardi, a Florida schoolteacher and online educator many of you may know as AmoebaMike. It turns out that I actually have met Mike before - at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston last summer.

HeLa buttons by Michael Lombardi, AmoebaMike.

Mike used Dr. Quintero's immunofluorescence image as is and that worked just fine for the digital printing. As with Holly, I came back to Mike several times with additional requests for tweaks - I count about 11 different designs from our many e-mails - and the final products came out lovely. In this case, we ran one of the buttons with a hashtag for the Twitterati. For their strong efforts, both Mike and Holly will each receive a T-shirt, a bunch of buttons, and a first edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks inscribed by the author. They also have my deep gratitude for contributing their skills to the inaugural exhibit of the Foundation at a scientific meeting and keeping me from losing my mind while I panicked and wondered if we would have the swag on-time. I also want to thank all of the other entrants to the contest who exercised their creativity on behalf of this effort. Even though your work was not selected, I truly appreciate your willingness to lend your support and imagination. For the record, the buttons were printed by and the shirts by CafePress.  The vinyl banner for the booth shown above came from The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website as designed awhile back by Being Wicked and printed at DocuSource in Morrisville, NC. For anyone needing last-minute printing in the Research Triangle area before boarding a plane, I strongly recommend DocuSource - they are located right at the airport exit off Interstate 40. So, how did it go? The idea for the buttons were to hand out to simply raise awareness about the Foundation. Interestingly, demand for each of the buttons was roughly equal, with Holly's "I Heart HeLa" button edging out the others for greatest demand. But what was cool was that each of the four designs drew enthusiastic comments from meeting-goers. The T-shirts - nice, fitted shirts from American Apparel - were to be premiums for donations to the Foundation. Rebecca Skloot's publisher also provided a few copies of her autographed hardback and paperback books for the same purpose.

This is the coolest thing I've seen in 2011.

I set up an account with Square, the credit-card swiping service in San Francisco that allows you to easily accept cards on the iPhone, iPad, or Android phones. This recommendation of Brian Russell (Carrboro Creative is a service I'll have to hold forth on at another time. I think people were as excited to donate and see the Square in action as they were about the Foundation. I'll risk sounding like NPR but at the $50 level we offered a premium of either a T-shirt or a signed paperback book; the $75 level was rewarded with a signed hardcover. (P.S. - And hearty thanks to my Mom and stepdad for making a contribution in honor of my birthday last week - a most welcome birthday present!) We did indeed raise awareness about The Henrietta Lacks Foundation and, as detailed in this New York Times article, the intention of Rebecca Skloot to give back to the Lacks family and descendants of others who were involved in medical research without their consent. About 90% of the people who came by had read the book but less than half knew that Rebecca had started the Foundation and already given out one round of education and medical care grants. And as a sign of these tough research funding times, about a dozen people came by to ask me if the Foundation provided grants to researchers. Alas, not. A lot of our readers know that I - like many scientists - have a special connection to HeLa cells. They were the basis of my PhD work on DNA topoisomerase II and were the source of reagents for the first paper and grant from my own independent laboratory. I had the rare pleasure to meet the Lacks family and speak at last May's dedication of a gravestone at Ms. Lacks's grave in Clover, Virginia. So, I was delighted when Rebecca invited me to serve on the Board of the Foundation. After we debrief from this exhibit experience, I'll let you know how you might be able to get some of this HeLa paraphernalia. Thanks again to everyone who participated in this contest!

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Aaah.mazing!!! And I love the buttons, too! Wish we had some when Rebecca was in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. I bet people would have loved to donate to the foundation and hep spread the word.

  2. Where can I get some of those buttons? I need them for a bioethics class.

  3. Where can we get the buttons? I would love to give them to my book group as well as spark a conversation about the woman and the book. Hoping to see Skloot speak at Elizabethtown College in PA. Wonderful eye-opening book! Science made relevant to all!