Dr. Maria Lopez Howell, first woman to receive the Academy of Operative Dentistry Award of Excellence: Her reflections on a successful career

Dr. Maria Lopez Howell with her husband, Dr. Mark Howell, and their two children, Blake and Candace.

UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry Alumna, Dr. Maria Lopez Howell, is the first woman to receive the Academy of Operative Dentistry Award of Excellence. Being the first woman had not crossed her mind initially, but she realized that she needed to give it importance. “I feel that it is time for the women who are working our profession to be recognized and acknowledged for the same work that we do as anyone else in our profession has done,” Dr. Howell shared. “It’s time and I’m glad to be the first one in this particular case, but I hope to see more, not just in the catalog of dentistry but across the board, nationwide.

Since her graduation in 1983, Dr. Howell’s 35-year multifaceted career has been filled with some twists and turns, but always led her to a deeper appreciation and love for the field of dentistry. Sitting in the office that she now shares with her husband and fellow dentist, Dr. Mark Howell, she gleams with pride at being able to run a business and practice with him: a definite career highlight for her.

Maria and Mark met in dental school. He sat in front of her in class and soon after graduating, they became husband and wife. Like many others in her family (13 to be exact), Maria became a dentist, but she also married one, following in the steps of four other family members. Upon graduating from dental school, they rented a small two-chair practice just down the road from where their office sits today. Since they were not busy enough to both be there, Maria also started teaching part-time.

Busy or not, however, that first practice was short lived. Just one year after graduating, the now Dr. Maria Howell became very ill. Unable to meet the physical demands of a practice, she returned to teaching after a short hiatus. “I was teaching a little bit but the head of restorative (dentistry) at that time said, ‘would you like to work some more?’ I was so thrilled to do that because I did have the energy to teach.”

Teaching became an integral part of Dr. Howell’s career, as well as something she grew to love with passion. She taught at UT Health San Antonio for 16 years, starting as a clinical instructor and eventually becoming tenured faculty. It was during this time that she also became the spokesperson for the American Dental Association and host of a National Public Service Announcement (PSA) called The ADA Dental Minute, for 14 years. According to the American Dental Association’s website, these first hit the airwaves in September 1998, offering one-minute oral health messages in a news broadcast style setting. In 2005, the PSA’s went bilingual. Anchoring all episodes, Dr. Howell and her team won a Nielsen Media Research Award. Dr. Maria Howell shared that it was a one in a million opportunity to be able to serve in her profession this way, “We only filmed once a year, but it brought me so much both personally and professionally.”

Dr. Howell went back to full-time practice with her husband in 2002 but she attributes each of the many opportunities and avenues that she has had the opportunity to experience in her career as beneficial to one another, “I feel that being involved on a national level, local level, teaching, practicing, everything has made each of the components better. I feel that being involved in organized dentistry and being a teacher made me a better dentist. Being a practitioner made me a better teacher. I mean, everything that I do somehow contributes to the whole experience that I’ve had.”

There is no lack of energy in Dr. Howell. She contributes this to treating herself with physical exercise. “The treat that has its benefits,” she shares, “its strength training and physical wellness. I have just never wavered in that regard.” She says that is what keeps her strong and what really carries into the practice because of its physical demands. When she really wants to treat herself, she can be found with her husband at Cured, a restaurant featuring handcrafted, preserved and smoked meats, located at the Pearl in San Antonio, Texas.

To new dental school graduates, Dr. Maria Howell offers the advice of joining a study club. “It is in a study club where you get to share your successes and your failures, keep current and stay new.” She believes that continuous learning is what will keep them and their love for dentistry alive. “Those people who stop learning are the ones that get burned out but the people who stay learning keep it (love for dentistry).” She also offers the advice she would have given herself as a recent graduate –to relax. “I feel like I have had so much fun in dentistry, but I would say, relax.” She continues, “I think we worry about knowing everything and we know so much more than we think we do. I think if we are pursuing excellence all the time we tend to focus on what we have done wrong instead of focusing on what went right. And so, I would tell myself to focus on the good things that happened instead of focusing on the things I could have done better. Learn from that and leave it at that and relax.”

Congratulations to Dr. Maria Lopez Howell on this award and the many accomplishments of her career.

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