Posted on Dec 30, 2021

USF’s Distinguished University Professor of 2021: Dr. Maureen Groer

USF’s Distinguished University Professor of 2021: Dr. Maureen Groer

Years before founding a cutting-edge research laboratory at the USF College of Nursing, decades before her pioneering work on mother-infant microbiomes, Dr. Maureen Groer was a young girl with polio, surrounded by nurses who would help shape the rest of her life.

Groer—USF’s Distinguished University Professor of 2021—would go on to accomplish global recognition for her biobehavioral research. She would gain renown for extensive collaborations and her legendary mentoring.

Dr. Groer mentoring students in lab

Dr. Groer mentoring students in lab

But that would all come later. Long before she was a pediatric nurse and researcher, Groer was a patient.Born and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, near Boston, Groer was drawn to science and biology from an early age, thanks to her father – a vice president and electrical engineer at Raytheon Technologies. He would help her with science fair projects for which she won awards at the school and state levels.

But it was the summer before fourth grade that would also leave a deep impression. While at summer camp, she contracted polio. This was just the year before the polio vaccine was available, and she was hospitalized and bedridden for weeks. Groer remembers the teams of nurses tending to her, their level of care that helped lead to her recovery.

“They had an enormous influence on me,” she recalled.

When it was time for college, Groer intended to pursue medical school—an unusual path for a young woman in the 1960s—an era when the thinking was that “girls went to college mostly to catch a man,” she said laughing.

With her parents focusing on her brother’s four-year university plans, she chose nursing school – studying for three years and then working several years as a pediatric nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital, her selected field inspired by her own childhood experiences.

As she was working at the hospital, her young patients’ conditions fired her interest in biology and pathology. She was determined to go to medical school, paying her own way working as a nurse.

But while studying for a master’s degree in radiation biology at Boston University, her plans were diverted again. In graduate school she met the man who would become her husband and life partner, a theoretical physicist whose career trajectory soon moved them to Illinois.

Instead of medical school, her resumed studies at the University of Illinois delved her deeper into academic research, culminating in a doctorate degree in physiology and biophysics. That path also cemented her true passion, one that had been brewing since graduate school.

“I began to see how much I loved doing research, how fulfilling a career that would be,” she said. Through research, she realized, she could still help patients, potentially impacting many through lab findings.

“I felt I could contribute so much more as a scientist,” she said.

Eventually after more moves and starting a family, she obtained a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Tennessee and honed her research interests in an area called psychoneuroimmunology – the relationship between stress and the human immune system. Groer focused especially on mothers and children.

She was particularly intrigued after a fun experiment with one of her sons. He was 7 and taking violin lessons, upset with the warts on his fingers. Groer made the earliest appointment available with the dermatologist, three weeks away, but tried something else in the meantime after reading about mind-body interactions in children. Drawing on the popularity of a new movie called Star Wars, she encouraged her son to shoot imaginary poison lasers into the warts, which he did with relish. By the third day the warts started to disappear, and by the second week, they were gone. Groer cancelled the doctor’s appointment.

“I was so impressed with the unbelievable power that the mind has over the immune system,” she said.

Around this time, she started to acquire major grants and funding for research on the effects of stress in mothers related to post-partum depression and the immune system, breast milk and infant health.

Many years later, by the time she moved to USF’s College of Nursing in 2006—close to her parents in Bradenton—she was an expert in the field.

Groer would remember the day three years later when the late Dr. Patricia Burns—then dean of the USF College of Nursing—opened the doors to a storage room no one ever seemed to enter.

“Maureen, do you think this could be a lab?” Groer recalled her saying. The space was massive—two thousand square feet—far bigger than the two cramped rooms nursing faculty and students used as labs over in the College of Public Health.

After Groer picked herself up from the floor from shock, she joked, she got busy working with architects to design what became one of the top college of nursing labs in the country – the Bio-Behavioral Research Laboratory.

“We have equipment in there that no other nursing labs have,” she said.

That includes state-of-the art machines for conducting DNA and RNA analysis as well as blood assays to check for stress hormones and inflammatory markers. It has patient rooms for exams and treatment.

It’s where Groer—who has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for the last two decades—has collaborated with colleagues from nursing and medicine to anthropology and developmental psychology.

Groer lactation research

Dr. Groer lactation research

The last eight years she has won major grants to study prematurely born babies and Very Low Birth Weight (VLBW) infants up to age four to investigate the long-term health effects on their gut microbiome – the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms in the digestive tract.

Her studies have examined the disruption to the development of a baby’s microbiome after extensive time in neona-tal intensive care units (NICU).

The disruptions stem from stressful procedures, too little contact with mothers, too much formula and not enough breastmilk, and an overabundance of antibiotics that kill off both bad bacteria as well as the good stuff. The findings have added to a booming area of research, shedding light on the positive effects of breastmilk, and are leading to hospital policy changes regarding NICU environments. Dramatically, they also point to potential lifelong impacts in prematurely born infants, such as signs of obesity by age four – as if a child’s metabolism system was locked in overdrive.

Part of USF’s Initiative on Microbiomes and also the Genomic Center, Groer and other scholars hope their studies can lead to additional medical and behavioral interventions – given research showing the gut microbiome’s key relationship to brain neurochemistry, metabolism and the immune system. Groer, who has mentored legions of young scientists and clinicians from the Colleges of Nursing and Medicine, envisions the lab as a path to the future of nursing science – rooted, she believes, at this molecular level.

Dr. Amy D’Agata was one of those mentees. She moved her family 1,200 miles from Connecticut for the chance to work as a post-doctoral fellow with Groer on the preterm infant gut microbiome study.

“After arriving at USF, I came to appreciate the wealth of knowledge and experience and scientific discovery she is involved in,” said D’Agata, now an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Rhode Island, whose clinical practice is in neonatal intensive care.

Not only was she “incredibly generous” with her time, knowledge and contacts, D’Agata said, but Groer also profoundly influences her mentees with her scientific rigor. “Maureen has made an indelible mark not only on nursing, but also the broader scientific community.”

D’Agata continues to work with Groer, investigating life-long health effects in pre-term infants, including signs of cardiometabolic disease.

“She has been pivotal in my career, and I’m forever grateful for her,” she said.

Dr. Adetola Louis-Jacques, an obstetrician and gynecologist specializing in maternal and fetal medicine and high-risk pregnancies, has worked with Groer in her lab for seven years as a mentee and colleague.

The lab is an “essential” place where researchers with diverse training, ethnic, racial, and research backgrounds can come together in a collaborative, welcoming environment, said Louis-Jacques, formerly an assistant professor at USF affiliated with Tampa General Hospital, and now at the UF Health Shands Hospital.

Her time with Groer included work on an important grant studying the correlations between pregnancy, depression and Toxoplasma gondii – a common parasite that affects the brain – in Hispanic women. Groer’s team has found surprisingly high rates of miscarriage and preterm deliveries among women who tested positive for Toxoplasma – findings in the process of being published.

The lab – warm, interdisciplinary, respectful – reflects Groer herself, Louis-Jacques added – someone who brings her entire life experience to the table, who cares as much about her mentees’ families and careers as she values their experience, research questions and projects.

“She’s just a really fantastic human being,” Louis-Jacques said. “She’s a really beautiful example of how to be a leader and mentor.”

Story by Saundra Amrhein