Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Announces Henrietta Lacks Excellence in Medicine Scholarship


Formerly known as the Dean’s Council Diversity Excellence in Medicine Endowed Scholarship, the scholarship will honor Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to science and medicine.



The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) announced the renaming of the Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) Dean’s Council Diversity Excellence in Medicine Endowed Scholarship to the Henrietta Lacks Excellence in Medicine Scholarship. This change is part of VTCSOM’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity in the medical field and to honor Lacks’ enduring contributions to science and medicine.1

Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman born in Roanoke in 1920, underwent treatment for cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Unbeknownst to her, her cells, known as “HeLa cells,” were taken for research purposes, playing a vital role in numerous medical discoveries over the past 70 years. Lacks’ story highlights the overlooked contributions of members of marginalized communities to medicine and raises ethical considerations regarding patient consent and privacy.1,2

Henrietta Lacks. ("Henrietta Lacks" by Oregon State University is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Henrietta Lacks. ("Henrietta Lacks" by Oregon State University is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

“It is fitting for us to honor Mrs Lacks and her role in medicine by reducing the financial barriers to medical students who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine,” said Lee Learman, MD, PhD, dean of VTCSOM, in a press release. “Reflecting on her life and legacy fuels our dedication to help build a healthy and inclusive future in the place of her birth.”

In commemoration of Lacks’ contributions, the medical school participated in Virginia’s first official Lacks Day on October 4, unveiling statues of Lacks in collaboration with the City of Roanoke and partners at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Carilion Clinic. Additionally, as part of Black History Month, the school is hosting a public showing of HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)3 at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke.1

The decision to rename the scholarship received widespread support from donors, alumni, and school supporters, including Frank Clark, MD, and his wife, Jennifer Clark, MD, who established the Diversity Excellence in Medicine Endowed Scholarship at VTCSOM.

“My wife, Dr Jennifer Clark, and I decided to establish the Diversity Excellence in Medicine Endowed Scholarship to help recruit and retain underrepresented students at VTCSOM,” Clark said in a press release.

“Students, especially those from underrepresented groups and low-income families, may defer their dream of becoming a physician due to heavy loan burden. We cannot address the social determinants and political determinants of health that contribute to premature death for historically marginalized communities without a physician workforce that reflects the populations we care for. I know this firsthand as Black physician who makes up 6% of the United States physician workforce. Therefore, it is paramount that scholarships such as the Henrietta Lacks Scholarship exist.”

Clark is an outpatient psychiatrist at Prisma Health-Upstate and clinical associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Greenville. He served on the American Psychiatric Association’s Task Force to Address Structural Racism Throughout Psychiatry, and he currently serves as the Diversity and Inclusion section editor and advisory board member for Psychiatric Times®.

The newly renamed scholarship aims to alleviate financial burdens associated with medical education and promote diversity within the medical profession. The Dean’s Advisory Council for Advancement unanimously approved the name change, with chair Jackie Wieland emphasizing its significance in supporting underrepresented students.1

“The scholarship is a positive step to support students who are underrepresented in medicine,” said Wieland in a press release. “Medical school is expensive, and our long-term goal is to make sure that no qualified student turns away from the medical profession due to affordability of education.”

Mark Watts, a Dean’s Advisory Council for Advancement member and retired physician, added that, “VTCSOM has meant a lot to the Roanoke community. Maintaining a diverse student population adds to the richness of the academic environment within our community. Structuring appropriate scholarship opportunities is the most important way the Dean’s Advisory Council can steer our school toward a more diverse and richer environment. Invoking Henrietta Lacks’ name and legacy is a perfect fit for this important scholarship.”

Note: This article was prepared with the assistance of ChatGPT.


1. Meyer J. Medical school honors Henrietta Lacks’ legacy through diversity scholarship. Virginia Tech. News release. February 16, 2024. Accessed February 21, 2024.

2. The legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed February 21, 2024.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. IMDb. Accessed February 21, 2024.

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