It is with deep sadness we report the passing of our friend and colleague, Professor Liz Howell. Liz joined the Department of Biochemistry as an assistant professor in January 1988. Liz was internationally renowned for her work on the biophysics and mechanisms of various enzymes in the dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) family. This enzyme plays an important role in nucleotide biosynthesis and is a notable target for several anti-cancer therapies, and Liz made several seminal contributions to our understanding of the mechanism of this fundamental enzyme. In addition to a groundbreaking, highly cited publication in Science on the structure and mechanism of chromosomal DHFR, Liz’s work over the past 30 years provided fundamental information on primitive enzymes using the R67 DHFR as a model. Her more recent work moved into the use of this protein as a model to understand how molecular crowding, characteristic of the environment inside biological cellular compartments, affects enzyme behavior. As an indication of her leadership and national standing in her field, Liz earned almost continuous support for her research from extramural grants since she won her first award as a young junior faculty member at UT in 1988. These included awards from the National Science Foundation, the Petroleum Research Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. She published more than 90 peer-reviewed papers on her work and received numerous awards for her outstanding scholarship. Her fundamental and transformative contributions to enzyme structure and function were recognized with her election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014.
While most faculty members eventually lose touch with day-to-day laboratory science as they move forward in their careers, Liz never compromised her passion and love for hands-on bench science and scientific discovery. She was happiest when working at the bench! Liz was an exceptional and creative teacher and mentor, devising graduate and undergraduate courses that ranged from first year graduate offerings in fundamental protein chemistry to grant writing courses stressing critical thinking and scientific writing. She also spearheaded outside the box offerings in science ethics that addressed key questions of the ethics and impact of science and innovation on society. More recently, she instituted a course in cancer biology (Oncology from the Bench to the Bedside and Beyond) at the senior undergraduate level that provided a novel format offering a comprehensive view of cancer from basic biochemistry and cell biology, to animal models for studying cancer, to clinical rounds with oncologists.
Outside the classroom and the research lab, Liz was a pioneer and role model for women in science. When she joined us in 1988, she represented the first woman faculty recruit in the 25-year history of the department. She served as a stellar role model for other women biologists and biochemists and was a strong proponent and advocate that led to the recruitment of additional women faculty, postdocs, and graduate students to the department. As our colleague Cynthia Peterson noted: “Liz was one of the main attractions in my recruitment to the University in 1992…even so, I could not have anticipated at the time of my hiring what a great influence and great colleague I would have in Liz Howell. She was a mentor and a friend who always had the right guidance at the right time.”
Liz directed the research of 14 female postdoctoral, PhD, or MS students and helped to launch their careers as independent scientists. She was selfless and gave her time to those she supported generously. She was a core member of the faculty mentoring team for UT’s Program for Excellence & Equity in Research (PEER) program, an NIH funded program that actively pursues the recruitment and training of women as well as students from underrepresented groups, with the goal of increasing the number of students graduating with doctoral degrees in STEM disciplines.
Liz was also a talented artist. She was renowned in the community for her work with ceramics and clay and was a member of the Terra Madre-Women in Clay group in Knoxville. Her artistic bent also permeated her science. She was particularly talented with effective use of visual imagery in science. Her research on R67 DHFR and structural symmetry was selected for display at the National Science Foundation as an example of art reflecting the beauty of science. Liz delighted in finding novel and creative approaches in the use of art to provide new ways of viewing science. Such approaches help bridge the gap between scientists and the general public, emphasizing the beauty of nature while conveying knowledge and information.