Remembering Dr. Deb Bowen










Our colleague and friend Deborah (Deb) Bowen died on the evening of Saturday, August 20th after an extended illness. According to her wife Linda McBlane, her passing was peaceful and painless. 

Deb joined us in the UW Department of Bioethics and Humanities in 2014 after serving as Professor and Chair in the Department of Community Health Sciences of the School of Public Health at Boston University. Prior to her time at BU she was a faculty member in the UW Department of Health Services and Member with the Public Health Sciences Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Deb, who was a co-author on over 400 peer-reviewed publications, devoted her career to studying biobehavioral determinants of diverse forms of healthcare delivery and health promotion, including cancer prevention and genomic medicine. She served as the principal investigator of several NIH-funded grants focused on cancer risk feedback and communication. Deb served in the coordinating centers of three large multi-center prevention trials: the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET), the Women’s Health Trial: Feasibility Study in Minority Populations (WHT:FSMP) and the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI).

Deb was also the Director of the Prevention Research Center at BU, focused on improving the health of public housing residents. Her research impact was significant and wide ranging. She was a valued collaborator and mentor to many biobehavioral health and public health genetics students, both here at the UW/Fred Hutch and in Boston.

From Deb's colleague, Shelby Langur, PhD, Associate Professor, Arizona State University, and current Cancer SIG Chair:

As you will no doubt agree, Deb was truly one of the best in the biz. She was incredibly productive. Over 400 publications and federal grant funding from 1986 to present. For her significant contributions to the field, Deb received multiple honors and distinctions, from “Outstanding Health Psychologist” in 1997 (APA) to recipient of our Cancer SIGGIE in 2012 and SBM’s Distinguished Research Mentor Award in 2016. I am struck by her breadth and depth in multiple regards. Her work addressed a wide range of social and health problems and employed a variety of methodologic approaches. She also collaborated with a great many of you in the Cancer SIG and beyond, and mentored countless students and trainees. If we were to map her professional network, the visual would be quite dense. Beyond the quantity of those connections, I suspect that they were also of extremely high quality. I had the privilege in 2016 of gathering “nuggets of wisdom” from senior investigators for a SIG mentoring initiative. Deb was one of the first thought leaders I approached, and boy did she supply some nuggets! I leave you with three gems, one on writing and the other two on mentoring.

Deb Bowen on writing (06.13.16)

We write all the time as academics. For me, writing is a tough process. I’m not a great writer. I have to work at it. I have to go over every paragraph a couple of times. It takes a lot of time and effort for me to write something very well. And I get my writing inspiration and examples from multiple sources. Not just scientific papers. I read the Seattle Times and use a couple of the columnists’ writing styles as models. I try to glean writing quality from everything I read, including people that I don’t agree with. So I think that writing is something that, by the time I retire, if I’m a good writer, I’ll have worked through my career to improve and refine my writing skills. I think it’s one of the most important things we do. It’s the way we talk about our science across the world. It’s something that people need to pay attention to and be willing to roll up their sleeves and work at.

Deb Bowen on mentoring part I (06.13.16)

One of the pieces of wisdom that I’ve heard from others is that mentoring has to be a two-way street, that both the mentee and the mentor have to receive benefits from the mentoring relationship, and I think that’s true. I think, though, that there comes a time in every mentoring relationship, maybe several times, where the mentor has to decide to put the priorities of the mentee first. In other words, they have to give up what they would choose to do and do something that’s just simply good for the mentee. And for some of us, that’s hard. We’re trained and pressured to go after whatever we can get and to gather as much of the goods as we can to ourselves. And that doesn’t always work in a mentoring relationship, because you’re there as much for the mentee as you are for yourself. So I think that looking at that and being honest, with ourselves and with each other, is something that has to happen in a good mentoring relationship. Because being ready to take second priority to a mentee once in a while is probably a necessary step in the process.”

Deb Bowen on mentoring part II (06.13.16)

One of the most important jobs of a mentor, I think, is to stick with the process no matter what happens. I’ve heard this feedback from many of my mentees. They appreciate the idea that I will be with them even through failure. For example, what happens if they get an unscored grant the second time in a row. They know that I’ll be there to review the pink sheets, look with them through what can be salvaged, and help them plan a future course. So letting your mentee know that you’re going to stick with them, and stick with them through the process, is a really critical part of being a mentor.”

Expressions of condolence to Deb’s family can be directed to Linda McBlane, 3401 S. Charles St., Seattle, WA 98144

We invite you to share your stories and memories here, and we will add them below. If you have photos to share, please email them to

Dr. Bowen's family requested donations in honor of her be sent to a fund in Deb’s name through the UW Dept. of Bioethics & Humanities. The fund will support scholarships in honor of Deb’s far-reaching commitment to public health sciences. To dedicate your gift in honor of Dr. Bowen's memory:

Link to Dr. Bowen's UW donation page:

From the UW Donation page, click the purple "Donate Now" button. On the donation page, you may dedicate your gift in Dr. Bowen’s memory:

  • Step 1:  Check the check box “I would like to dedicate this gift to someone”
  • Step 2:  Select “In Memory”
  • Step 3:  Enter Dr. Bowen’s name as "Honoree"

Featured article from UW Medicine’s The Huddle: Remembering Deborah Bowen


I’m so terribly sorry to hear of Deb’s passing. She was enormously helpful to me as our department chair when I was starting out in academia. She went out of her way to help and mentor me and I’ll always be grateful for that. My sincere condolences to her family. ~Candice Belanoff, former BUSPH colleague

I am grateful to Deb for her encouragement and support during my early years as a scientist. My condolences to her family. ~Jonathan Bricker, colleague

I was saddened by the news that Deb has moved on. I got to know Deb a little when I was a research assistant at the Center for Genomics and Health Care Equality (CGHE) and during IPHG's Wednesday journal clubs. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to take any of her classes as she departed UW a year or so after I arrived. But I have always remembered Deb. She warmly welcomed me when I started at CGHE, was respectful of others opinions, was a great listener, and a humble, and passionate teacher. She was always excited to be serving others through her work and teaching. Deb and her family are in my prayers. ~Llilda Barata, former student

Deb was on my dissertation committee for my DrPH at BUSPH and she was the chair of my home department. I always found Deb to be kind, approachable, and welcoming. I appreciated her support as I navigated completing my doctorate, working full time, and welcoming my second child shortly after my defense. ~Michele Sinunu, former student

I had the pleasure of meeting Deb last September. I was a recent graduate with only a couple years of experience as a research assistant, yet to my surprise, Deb hired me on as the Project Manager for her most recent NIH-funded research project, EDGE. I felt out of my depths at first, but Deb has an uncanny talent for mentoring and challenging her colleagues, staff, and students as they grow in their field. Throughout the past year, she pushed me to grow into my position in ways that I didn't think I was capable of, and through her I discovered a career path that I fell in love with. I quite literally would not have the career, community, or skills that I do today without her, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

I found her direct communication style, humour, and passion for her work refreshing. She made it clear that she would do whatever was needed to ensure that myself, my colleagues, and her students (or "kids" as she called them) succeeded in their ambitions. The kind of mentorship Deb offered is rare and serves as evidence of her generous and kind spirit. Hearing of her passing was heartbreaking, and she is very dearly missed all of us who are working on EDGE. We hope to proceed forward and finish this study in a way she would be proud of, and in the future, I hope to pay forward the mentorship and guidance she gave to me. ~DaLaina Cameron, EDGE staff member

I am so sorry to hear of Deb’s passing. She was a founding faculty member of the Public Health Genetics program and was a wonderful collaborator. She was instrumental in developing the curriculum for the ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications) component of the program, that was central to its unique interdisciplinary training. Not only was she an accomplished researcher and scientist, she was an outstanding teacher and mentor to our students. I will always have fond memories of working with her and learning from her valuable perspectives. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to her family and friends. ~Melissa Austin, Founding Director, Institute for Public Health Genetics, collaborator and friend

Deb was the most kind, caring, and generous person I have worked with. The moment I approached her to talk to her about my interest in her work she offered me an opportunity to work with her on a review paper she was doing. She said that she didn't like to have meetings with students where she didn't have something to offer them. When funding became available to the EDGE Study she reached out to me to give me the chance to work more closely with her. Since then, my life has changed pretty drastically and through all of this Deb has unwaveringly supported my professional growth and progress. She encouraged and supported me as I applied to PhD programs and built out my dissertation ideas. The impact of Deb's loss cannot be understated - she had such a large network of people, like me, who she was mentoring and helping. My hopes are to carry the legacy of Deb's work into what I am able to accomplish. ~EJ Dusic, Mentee and Research Assistant on the EDGE Study