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Remembering Professor Liz Howell

Liz Howell

It is with deep sadness that we report the passing of our friend and colleague, Professor Liz Howell. Liz joined the Department of Biochemistry as an assistant professor in January of 1988. We knew from the beginning that she was a brilliant experimentalist. Little did we know then that underneath Liz’s quiet, kind, and cheerful demeanor lay an intellectual force who would have a profound impact on our department during a stellar 31-year career. If you would like to make a gift in memory of Professor Howell, click here. Then scroll down and expand the section “This is an honorary or memorial gift” so that it can be given in memory of Professor Howell.

Liz is 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 has 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 thirty years has provided fundamental information on “primitive” enzymes using the R67 DHFR as a model. Her more recent work has 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 include awards from the National Science Foundation, the Petroleum Research Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. She has 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.

Liz with her Ph.D. student Deepika Nambiar at the 8th Southeast Enzyme Conference, Atlanta GA in 2017.

Liz with her Ph.D. student Deepika Nambiar at the 8th Southeast Enzyme Conference, Atlanta GA in 2017.

While most faculty members eventually lose their 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! Also, 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 for senior undergraduates offering a comprehensive view of cancer from basic biochemistry and cell biology, to animal models for studying cancer, to clinical rounds with oncologists. Her courses were instrumental in expanding the perspective of both graduate students and undergraduates beyond the scientific concepts of our discipline to a broader societal understanding.

Outside of 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 has 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’s clay work and ceramics featured at the 2015 Terra Madre 6th Annual Show & Sale.

Liz’s clay work and ceramics featured at the 2015 Terra Madre 6th Annual Show & Sale.

Liz directed the research of 14 female postdoctoral, PhD, or MS students and has 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 is renowned in the community for her work with ceramics and clay, and is a member of the Terra Madre-Women in Clay group in Knoxville. Her artistic bent also permeated her science, and 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.

“Gentle words, quiet words, are after all the most powerful words. They are more convincing, compelling and prevailing.”
“Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
Liz Howell’s rendition of Wassily Kandinsky's “Farbstudie Quadrate” as a template for various structural depictions of her R67 dihydrofolate reductase images. This picture can be found on fourth floor of the Mossman Science Building at UTK.

Liz Howell’s rendition of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Farbstudie Quadrate” as a template for various structural depictions of her R67 dihydrofolate reductase images. This picture can be found on fourth floor of the Mossman Science Building at UT.

While the immense impact and qualities of Liz Howell the scientist…the educator….and the artist are clear, the descriptions above do not shed light on her remarkable character and strength. As her friend for more than 30 years, I was fortunate enough to see firsthand her quiet grace, understated sense of humor, and her unfailing kindness. An introvert, Liz was an intense listener, preferring to quietly consider and analyze before speaking. Many students, and even some of her colleagues, could be a little intimidated at first by her quiet smile as they knew that their words were being weighed, parsed, and evaluated behind that calm exterior. But in the end, her input was always positive, measured, thoughtful, and was expressed from a perspective that usually offered alternative and insightful ways to view a problem, question, or concept.

In more recent years, when faced with declining health, Liz fiercely maintained her positive, enthusiastic, and uncompromising approach, finding solace in meditation, her science, and her art. Her courage, strength, and grace in the face of personal challenge and adversity were remarkable and awe-inspiring. She continued to reach out to her friends and colleagues with positive updates even towards the end, and it was with great sadness that we learned of her passing on the evening of April 9. We have lost not only a scientific giant and BCMB icon, but a kind and decent person, an exceptional role model and mentor, and most importantly a wonderful friend.

Dan Roberts, April 14, 2019
Faculty and Former Students respond to the news of Liz Howell’s passing
I am devastated to read this very sad news. Dr. Howell was the instructor of my very first graduate course (advanced protein biochemistry). I have always regarded her as kind, gracious, and dedicated to her students and work…a fantastic educator and researcher.
Brian Ranger

I am so sorry to hear the news of Liz passing. She was a positive, pleasant, always appropriate and wonderful role model. I will miss her presence in our hallway.
Keerthi Krishnan

Liz taught us an important lesson of strength during adversity.
Chris Boake

She fought and fought and fought.
Sanguine and down to earth.
hold her in admiration.

Jeremy Smith

We lost a colleague and inspiration especially for women in science. She was a role model, a mentor and an inspiration to many of us. Her legacy will live on. I have lost a mentor and supporter and my heart is broken.
Gladys Alexandre

I am devastated. Liz was such a great mentor and had such a positive impact of my life.
Stephanie Hicks

Liz came with this really good idea of screening structures for novel interactions such as anion-pi in proteins and quantify their importance form a knowledge-based approach…we found that this unusual interaction is actually present in thousands of protein structures…She will be missed very much, both in the field and personally. It has been a privilege for me to work and publish with her.
Jerome Baudry

This is such sad news…She was truly an amazing individual and will be very missed.
Alison Buchan

Liz was always someone I looked to for advice. She was sharp, brutally honest, and always challenging you to be your best…. I felt fortunate to work with her closely. I enjoyed visiting her office which was full of art she had made. She was always accessible. Taking an ethics class with her and her husband was one of my favorite courses. I particularly enjoyed seeing the pair they represented, a philosopher and a scientist. I am very sorry to hear that she has passed. I wish the best for her family and those of you currently closest to her.
Jason Harris

Liz was someone that was very near and dear to my heart. I looked up to her as a mentor and a friend. I first worked with her on the quadrupole paper and during that time formed a bond with her that continued even after my subsequent graduation from UT…She was very close to me and my family and I will miss her dearly.
Vivek Philip

It’s tough to put in words how much Liz meant to me. I remember that I was so intellectually intimidated by her when I was an undergraduate, but not in a bad way. I knew that she was always available to talk, but that if I wanted to talk with her, I should have deeply contemplated an idea before I even started the conversation. I believe that she forced me to think deeply about the science that I was doing, but that she was always there to provide key insights to help me move forward. She was extremely kind and patient. From Liz, I learned that there’s a whole level of detail that many scientists simply gloss over because it is hard to understand, and that we should sometimes dive into that detail whole-heartedly and not be afraid of it. I also learned that sometimes it is most important to be kind and calm, and to be honest with people.
Ian Wallace

It is impossible to capture with words what a kind, generous, and smart person Liz was. The first word that comes to mind for me is gratitude. Liz had a tremendous impact in my career and as an individual. I had the privilege of collaborating with her for the last 10 years. There was not a single interaction with her that did not educate me and made me feel better. Just a couple of days before her surgery she sent me comments on a manuscript that I was preparing. She corrected me in such an elegant and kind way. I will miss her tremendously.
José I. Reyes De Corcuera

She made such a difference in my life and I would not be the scientist I am today without her. She was a champion for the underdogs. She was actively involved in outreach in the community, science fair judging, supporting underrepresented minority students, and pottery throwing. Our department will not be the same without her, and I’m so thankful I had such an amazing mentor with me every step of the way in grad school.  I think we should all strive to be a little more like Liz: enjoy the beauty in life, have an incredibly messy office, and remember to reach back and help the people who don’t even know they need help.
Lindsey O’Neal

I can honestly say that Liz helped to mold me as a scientist, showed me how exciting discovery can be, and forced me to always ask the hard questions of yourself and your results. She was an intellectual heavyweight but never lorded that over your head. She listened intently and carefully, providing tough love when it was needed.  She was quietly tenacious yet always fair and judicious. She had a way of asking seemingly simple questions but that were layered in their meaning and heavy in nuance.
Brad Bennett

Liz was not only a brilliant scholar but also a wonderful mentor.  When I talk with my students about her, I describe how she truly cared about students in her lab.  She wanted us to succeed.  She will be greatly missed.
Lori Stinnett West