• Jennifer Howell ’09
    Southwestern University

After graduating from Southwestern in 2009, Jennifer Howell went on to obtain her M.S. and Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Florida. Today, she serves as assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of California, Merced. But do not assume she is focused on teaching future psychologists new ways to ask, “And how does that make you feel?” As the principal investigator at the Merced Experimental Social and Health (MESH) Psychology Laboratory, Howell is conducting groundbreaking research on the intersection of social psychology and health, studying everything from how people manage bad information about their health to the narcissistic tendencies of women who go on a date with a man to receive a free meal.

“Dr. Howell is a star on her way to being a superstar in psychology,” says James A. Shepperd, R. David Thomas Endowed Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida. “She is among the best students to come through the social-psychology training program in my 27 years here, and she is doing amazing things as a research psychologist.”

Howell is particularly interested in how processes surrounding the self (e.g., defensiveness and social comparison) influence health decision-making and behavior. “Her work has illuminated how people defend themselves against psychological threats, and her contributions to the field have transformed our understanding of such defensive strategies as information avoidance and derogating personally relevant feedback. Better yet, she examines highly consequential outcomes of these processes, including physical health,” says Kate Sweeny, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who has collaborated with Howell on numerous research projects.

Howell has published an astounding 39 peer-reviewed journal articles and five book chapters. She also serves as section editor of a journal (Social and Personality Psychology Compass), a rare honor for an untenured junior professor. Her work has been featured in a number of national media outlets, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, and The Wall Street Journal. “Part of what has made Jenny such an extraordinarily productive scientist is that she generates ingenious ways to test hypotheses,” Shepperd says. “Some of the methodological paradigms my lab uses today are based on methods that Jenny devised eight years ago in the early years of her graduate training.”

“Jenny is truly a force of nature. She is fiercely intelligent, as sharp and quick as anyone I know. She is passionate about all her endeavors, both personal and professional,” Sweeny says. “Perhaps less obvious, Jenny is also deeply compassionate, particularly toward people who face disadvantage by various definitions.” Howell is known to seek out underserved students to mentor and is committed to programs that promote diversity. 

“She doesn’t limit her teaching to the classroom,” says her partner, Janet Del Real 10, who met Howell at Southwestern. “Jenny has taught her students not just concepts in a textbook, but life skills that the many underprivileged students she works with haven’t had access too, like how to change a tire, how to drive a car, how to file taxes, how to get past a bad grade, how to cope with a friend dying, how to deal with rejection, and how to seek medical attention. She has enriched her students’ lives.”

Since graduating from Southwestern, Howell has supported her alma mater financially and otherwise. She frequently sits on career and graduate school panels for the psychology department and volunteers as part of a student mentorship program that pairs students with graduates in their chosen career field. She recently volunteered as an ambassador for Southwestern’s annual Giving Day and served on her 10-year reunion committee.

“Despite her hectic schedule, Jenny is always available to help me (and my current students) analyze and interpret data (her skills are second to none!) and to read, edit, and make comments on drafts of our manuscripts for publication. She is a huge asset (more than any other alum I can remember), and I am so grateful for her generosity,” says Traci Giuliano, professor of psychology at Southwestern.

For her outstanding contributions to the field of psychology and her dedication to Southwestern’s core values, the Southwestern University Alumni Association is proud to honor Jennifer Howell as a Distinguished Young Alumna.