Penn State College of Medicine Alumni Update

A Lifetime of Questions Poured into The National Children's Study

Marianne Felice, M.D.

It’s been decades since Marianne Felice, M.D. ’72 was a nun, but she likes to think that her Mother Superior, who encouraged her to go to medical school in the first place, would be proud of her achievements.

As one of only three women to graduate from Penn State College of Medicine’s second class in 1972, Dr. Felice has come a long way from the days when she was a “feisty” nun aspiring to be a doctor, wearing a habit to class during her freshman year.

Her struggle to learn medicine mirrored a parallel spiritual journey, as she sought to address her doubts about staying in convent life. “I was in tremendous angst. I was grappling with medical school, and grappling with staying in the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh.” She had had many conversations with her Mother Superior about this struggle.

She clearly remembers her last night at the convent: July 22, 1970. At midnight, her temporary vows expired and she had decided not to renew them or to take final vows for life. This meant that she could simply convent life without seeking a dispensation from the Vatican in Rome. Dr. Felice can still clearly recall the act of folding up her habit, putting on the dress her father had brought for her to wear home, and asking her Mother Superior if she could keep her prayer book.

Her Mother Superior handed her a check for $400 to help pay tuition and said, “I’m disappointed that you’re leaving the convent, but I think you will make a wonderful doctor someday.”

Dr. Felice says that those words – along with the warmth, support and encouragement of her classmates and professors at Penn State, including the well-known Stover family, who invited her to stay in their home – “carried me through.”

It turns out that her Mother Superior was absolutely right. Today, in addition to serving as Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Physician-in-Chief of the UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center, Dr. Felice is the Principal Investigator of a $16 million NICHD-funded project – part of a nationwide study (called The National Children’s Study) of 100,000 children from pre-birth to 21 years.

It is seminal research, hoping to provide for children what the Framington Heart Study uncovered for adult men and what the Women’s Health Initiative discovered for post-menopausal women (uncovering a link between increased estrogen and heart disease).

“There are so many unknown questions, yet this is the first longitudinal study we’ve ever done on children in the U.S.,” says Dr. Felice. “We’re looking at the effect of the environment on children’s health and development and the onset of childhood diseases.”

Having a large enough pool of mothers and infants (and following them through all stages into adulthood) is critical, especially since the incidence of disease is lower in children than adults.

“There are so many theories out there,” says Dr. Felice. “For example, what has caused the increase in autism? Why is black infant mortality higher than white infant mortality? Why are peanut allergies higher? There may be factors we haven’t looked at that we might be able to tease apart with more complete data.”

The National Children’s Study is ambitious research that will look at a wide array of factors that could affect children’s health and development. Since we are studying the effect of environment on development, the study will include collecting samples of water, air, dust and dirt in homes, schools, and daycare centers; conducting extensive interviews with parents and caregivers (recognizing that there are many different family configurations); getting ultrasounds and DNA samples; and collecting data having the same protocols followed by all the research sites across the nation.

In the end, more than 100 sites in 43 counties will participate in the study and will be a representative sample of the demographics of the United States.. Each site is responsible for recruiting 1,000 patients for the study.

Currently, Dr. Felice and her team are engaged in formative research and pilot studies to determine best practices for recruitment and data collection. “This study needs everyone following the same protocols and getting data the same way, whether it’s from a Native American reservation in Utah or here in central Massachusetts.”

“We’re proud to be the only funded site in Massachusetts, and one of only four sites in New England,” she says, adding, “The community is excited. They know their children are going to be making history, and they want to contribute data that will help set policy that has the potential to affect their own grandchildren.”

Dr. Felice is eager to see what emerges as children grow. “Early on, we might learn about infant mortality and prematurity. As these children start school, we might uncover more about learning disabilities, and as teens, we’ll hear more about obesity and mental illnesses in the post pubertal years.

“The data and information will come in waves as the children grow over 21 years,” she adds.

Yet “when my husband talks to me about retirement, I always say, ‘I can’t. I still have to do three things,’” she says.

Be forewarned: it is not a list for the faint of heart.

Dr. Felice’s “to-do-before-retiring” list includes 1) figuring out why Worcester, MA has a higher infant mortality rate than the rest of the Commonwealth; 2) building a new children’s hospital in central Massachusetts (“I’m not sure this will happen”) and 3) creating clinical research career opportunities for her junior faculty (“This national study might answer that”).

Considering her numerous achievements – which include various leadership positions in academic medicine, including past president of the Association of Medical School Pediatric Department Chairs (AMSPDC); recipient of $7 million in federal grants for research, plus the $16 million for the National Children’s Study; and founder of the Worcester Teen Tot Connection, a clinic that addresses the medical needs of teenage mothers to prevent subsequent pregnancy – Dr. Felice still pauses for a moment when asked: What makes you most proud?

Thoughtfully, she says, “I’m most proud of the Department of Pediatrics. We’ve doubled our faculty and created a wonderful children’s medical center for kids in central New England. We are the only tertiary care program in this area outside Boston.”

She adds, “I also love teaching and training the young doctors of the future, watching this generation grow their skills.”

What about her work on the National Children’s Study? That’s a pretty powerful notch on the belt. Dr. Felice just laughs, adding, “All we’ve really done is get the money for the study. We need to put our money where our mouth is.”

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