In Memoriam: Dr. Wanda Howell (1949 - 2022)

Sept. 30, 2022

Wanda Howell.jpeg

Professional headshot of Dr. Wanda Howell
Dr. Wanda Howell was a Bart Cardon Teaching Fellow and Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona.

As a child growing up in rural Ohio, Wanda Howell lived by a motto: “Try to do what you think you can’t do.” That mindset was evident throughout her time at the University of Arizona. As a Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences* and a longtime member of the Faculty Senate, she challenged herself and those around her to try, to work, to innovate, to succeed.

“Serendipitous” is the word Dr. Howell used to describe her beginnings in the Nutritional Sciences Department at the U of A. By 1986, she’d spent a decade as a clinical dietitian, first at the University of Cincinnati, followed by the University of Pennsylvania. She was working on her doctoral dissertation when she and her husband, Nelson, fell in love with Tucson and decided to make the move to the desert. She inquired about teaching positions at the U of A, and as luck would have it, the current clinical nutrition instructor was leaving to pursue her own graduate studies. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dr. Howell earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990, and accepted a full-time position on the Nutritional Sciences faculty. By 1996, she had been promoted to Full Professor and the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics, an academic program designed to train future registered dietitian nutritionists. She was instrumental in developing the program to meet the accreditation standards of the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

Dr. Howell’s research focused on measuring energy metabolism, body composition assessment, and the relationships of dietary factors and lipids to cardiovascular disease. Her work appeared in such publications as the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Journal of Clinical Dentistometry, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, and Nutrition in Clinical Practice, among others. She also served as a mentor for future researchers in the field, some of whom have since joined the University of Arizona faculty. “I was Wanda’s first grad student,” recalls Martina Cartwright, Director of Continuing Professional Education for the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness (NSW). “She was a great teacher and brought in her published case studies as teaching tools. She was one-of-a-kind.”

Dr. Howell had a deep, abiding love of teaching and mentoring. In a 2012 interview for Lo Que Pasa, she declared, “You can’t be a good teacher if you are not doing it for the right reasons.” She said wanted to “influence those around [her] to be the best they can be.” She was beloved by her students and mentees, writing more than 500 letters of recommendation for students and colleagues over the years. “Wanda Howell was a force to be reckoned with,” writes Carrie Earthman, one of Dr. Howell’s doctoral students, now a professor at the University of Delaware. “With her unwavering support, I grew as a person, and as a clinical scientist and teacher.”

Dr. Howell served on the Faculty Senate at the University of Arizona for over a decade, including many years as Chair of the Faculty. “She championed the importance of faculty governance as a core value of the University of Arizona system,” remembers Linda Houtkooper, an NSW professor emerita and longtime colleague and friend. As Chair of the Faculty, Dr. Howell helped expand the definition of research and scholarship during the promotion and tenure process to be more inclusive. Dr. Houtkooper continues, “She provided a voice for the faculty in decisions that impacted the breadth and quality of instruction, research, outreach education, and community relations.”

Wanda was a force in the Department of Nutritional Sciences,” says NSW director Scott Going. “She was known for her ready smile, her ‘no BS’ attitude, and her love of Elvis. She will be greatly missed.”

When she was away from campus, Dr. Howell threw herself into her hobbies and interests, which included cheerleading, skiing, fencing, bowling, aerobics, and piloting small aircraft. She was curious about the world and traveled widely, visiting places like Japan, South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Even in her quiet moments, she enjoyed a challenge, playing bridge and solving complicated puzzles. She loved spending time with her family and friends and always made an effort to prioritize her family life, even when things were busy at work.

Dr. Howell is survived by her husband, Nelson Howell, her son, James Howell, her sisters, Patsy McCamey and Betty Hoevenaar, and her nephew, Jeremy Hoevenaar. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the Howell family have ask that donations be made to Hospice of Cincinnati.

*Now the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness (NSW)

Personal Tributes

"When we moved from FCR (now Saguaro) to Shantz, Wanda asked me to paint her office (309 I think).  She wanted primary colors, blue, red and yellow on the off-white walls to add some spark---she also wanted red blinds.

One weekend, I went to the office with an artist friend and we painted it--- yellow stripe along the top—red stripe in the middle with red “stick people and hieroglyphics” and a blue stripe along the bottom—then splattered the various colors on the wall---Wanda LOVED it!  However, I understand she had to answer to the painters union since we didn’t get permission to make the change.  The office was the talk of the department and the students.  It was different and inviting which is the way Wanda liked it—we were infamous—I don’t know what really happened as far as the department was concerned, but Wanda’s office stayed like that for years.

I was Wanda’s first grad student so we spent a lot of time together-  she was wacky most of the time but could be stern sometimes too with her students ---it was a fun experience ---she liked being a bit eccentric and eclectic.  We’d go out to happy hour after class occasionally.   

She started calling me 'Tinkerbell' after the boys I was a nanny for throughout undergrad and grad school decided I looked like Tinkerbell-----as her TA, we’d be grading assignments, and she’d say 'Well Tinkerbell, we have our hands full with this class.'

Wanda was a great teacher and brought in her published case studies as teaching tools.  I remember when she arrived on campus as our undergraduate instructor for nutrition support.   She was one-of-a-kind.  I’ll miss her." - Dr. Martina Cartwright

"Excellent teacher, amazing mentor, fierce advocate for me as her doctoral student, vocal supporter of women in academia. Wanda Howell was a force to be reckoned with. She taught me to believe in myself,  to value my time and contributions, and to not allow anything or anyone to stand in my way.  With her unwavering support, I grew as a person, and as a clinical scientist and teacher. I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to have had her in my life not only as a mentor but a very dear friend. I will miss her terribly." - Dr. Carrie Earthman

"I was fortunate to be one of  Wanda’s long-term colleagues.  We shared ideas, insights, problems, stories, jokes and lots of laughs.  Over the years, we worked together on many Department functions and committees, research projects, publications and student mentoring.  Our lively and feisty discussions fueled our efforts in solving problems and achieving goals. She was always willing to be a speaker at Cooperative Extension community education programs for health promotion related to dietetics and cardiovascular disease prevention.

Wanda’s intellect, wit, wisdom, tenacity, and sense of humor, through good times and rough times, were her hallmarks.  She helped make the University and the world a better place.  Her spirit lives on in the legacy of what she accomplished and the many lives she touched." - Dr. Linda Houtkooper