Wanda Howell, PhD, RD
For the past three decades, Dr. Wanda Howell has been a vital force in the continued development of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona. As a beloved teacher and mentor, she will be remembered as an unapologetic advocate for the students and faculty on campus. In a way, Dr. Howell's academic career began in 6th grade, when a teacher pulled her mother aside to insist that Wanda go to college. Despite the fact that this was not considered a necessary expense in her family at the time, her mother saved (sometimes clandestinely) and made it happen. That same determination grew in Wanda as she developed a motto: "try to do what you think you can't do." In high school, almost as a joke or protest, Wanda tried out for the cheerleading squad. But when she made the cut, she decided to stick with it, and made challenging herself a lifelong priority.
It was in college that Wanda was first drawn to nutrition because it was not a mainstream field of study. However, after a hot dog and mixed vegetables recipe from "quantity cooking" that was served campus-wide, as well as breaking multiple glass droppers while making homemade mayonnaise in "experimental foods," she found herself gravitating toward clinical nutrition. Post-graduation, Wanda earned an RD and MS in Ohio and then took several positions that challenged her to be innovative in the field of clinical nutrition. From integrating nutrition into the care process of nurses at the University of Cincinnati to incorporating nutrition education into medical school curricula at the University of Pennsylvania, Wanda's work was characterized by an interdisciplinary approach.
In 1986, Wanda moved to Tucson to teach at the University of Arizona, while still working on her dissertation. The openness and big sky in Tucson was love at first sight. Balancing work and family life was a challenge, but she persevered and earned her Ph.D. in 1990. Shortly afterward, she began a position as Assistant Professor, a job she describes as difficult because 'you have to make it on your own. In academia you know what to do to succeed and you are the only one who can make it happen. It's like being self-employed and having a life that renews itself each fall. The amount of work that one puts in to an academic job is a lot more than outsiders think.'
In 1996 Dr. Howell became a full professor and Didactic Program in Dietetics Director. Although she ran a successful and innovative research lab, working with students was her passion and "always fun." She especially enjoyed when students pretended to be her during case study presentations, like "Wanda B. Adietitian." She found these "caricatures of Wanda" to be quite endearing because as a mentor and teacher 'it is important to be a great presence, but also to have a great sense of one's eccentric self. Having students imitate you in that way is the greatest form of flattery.' As a mentor, she has written about 500 letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, happily helping students during the most important transitions of their young lives.
Dr. Howell served on the Faculty Senate at the University of Arizona for over a decade, including eight years as Chair of the Faculty. Throughout her tenure, the faculty senate became a more visible force at the departmental, college, and university levels, gaining respect from the Board of Regents. She was a strong advocate of shared governance and is especially proud of her role in changing policies regarding faculty promotion and tenure. As Chair of the Faculty, Dr. Howell helped to expand the definition of research and scholarship during the promotion and tenure process to include outreach work and patents. "Persuasion" was her favorite non-nutrition course during college, and it certainly came in handy during this time.
Though not being in the classroom has been an adjustment, Dr. Howell says, 'if you don't force life, it will turn out to be your best life.' She also notes that 'you have to constantly reinvent yourself' and that 'you learn about your potential by being open to opportunities and change.' From farm girl, to cheerleader, to dietetic pioneer, to academic professor, to researcher, to mentor, to Chair of the Faculty ... it's clear that Dr. Howell has always lived by these rules.