May 16, 2023 — At work, Caroline Signore is surrounded by alligators — long or short, tall and small, adorned with glasses, hats and expressions ranging from silly to serious.
For Signore, M.D. ’92, M.P.H., the dozens of figurines perched on shelves in her Bethesda, Maryland, office are a daily reminder of a network of support, a community, a home away from home.
“Eight of the best years of my life were spent in Gainesville,” said Signore, who received her medical degree and completed her residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at the UF College of Medicine. “I am grateful for the people I met there, the bonds we forged and how deeply connected I feel to them.”
Signore, who last visited Gainesville in 2002 for her 10-year class reunion, returns to her alma mater May 20 to receive the UF Distinguished Alumna Award, which recognizes graduates who have excelled in their chosen field or have performed outstanding service for the university. She was awarded the accolade in 2020 but was unable to travel to campus to be recognized due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 20-year veteran of the National Institutes of Health, she has dedicated her career to the reproductive health care needs of women with disabilities. As the deputy director of the Division of Extramural Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, or NICHD, she advises on funding, operations and strategy and facilitates scientific initiatives around topics such as clinical trial networks, maternal morbidity and mortality, health disparities, stillbirth, and pregnancy and reproductive health needs for women with disabilities.
“We’re advocates for research, constantly assessing where there are gaps in knowledge and how we can support programs to address those gaps,” she said. “Understanding pregnancy for people with disabilities has been my niche. There is so little available science to help guide patients, their doctors and midwives. It’s been my mission to bring this to the forefront of clinicians’ minds and to inspire a few more people to devote research time to it.”
One such initiative focused on addressing gaps in research for pregnant women with disabilities is PregSource, of which Signore was a principal investigator. The NIH research project, which launched in 2017 and concluded in April, collected a comprehensive picture of the pregnancy experience directly from women, including those with physical disabilities, to identify distinct challenges faced by subgroups of women that could inform strategies for improving maternal care for all.
A life steeped in health care was not always in Signore’s plan. Originally intending to pursue a career in business and computer science, she took an aptitude test while in college at Furman University in South Carolina that first set her on the path to medicine. After landing a job at the campus infirmary and volunteering at the local hospital, her interest in becoming a physician solidified.
She fell in love with UF during her medical school interviews, where she met pulmonologist Gene Ryerson, M.D., and beloved associate dean for student and alumni affairs Hugh “Smiley” Hill, M.D., whom she would later count among her mentors, along with obstetrics and gynecology professor Patrick Duff, M.D. An early holiday present, her acceptance letter arrived on Christmas Eve in 1988 and she quickly withdrew her other applications.
During her time at UF for medical school and residency, she formed strong bonds with peers and learned the art of balancing hard work and valuable relationships. Intending to devote her time to caring for patients, a life in research was not always part of Signore’s plan. Upon completing her training in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, where she served as chief resident, she prepared to apply her patient care skills in a small private practice in Denver.
Four months into practicing as an OB-GYN, a car accident over Thanksgiving weekend in 1996 completely changed her trajectory. While spending months at a rehabilitation hospital with a traumatic cervical spinal cord injury, she felt buoyed by her UF community over 1,700 miles away.
“While I was hospitalized, the level of support and love that came pouring out of UF was really amazing,” she said. “The encouragement I got from classmates, fellow residents, faculty and nurses I had worked with was practically lifesaving. People came to visit and sent care packages, posters, flowers and T-shirts, and held fundraising events to help defray some of the costs. It was unbelievable.”
After moving to Washington, D.C., and pivoting from patient care, Signore enrolled in a master’s program that would set her on a path to the NIH. An eight-week epidemiology summer student internship opportunity with the NICHD morphed into her completing her master’s project and a postdoc in epidemiology, which then led her to join the Pregnancy and Perinatology branch of NICHD.
Two decades later, Signore has turned what she calls “being in the right place at the right time” into an impactful career that sheds light on the barriers to reproductive health care that women with disabilities face. Her many roles and accolades have included serving as an advisory board member to an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists committee from 2004 to 2009 to produce resources that assisted members with providing quality reproductive health care to women with disabilities and winning the Disability Champion Award from the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in 2019 for her life’s work.
“If you had asked me when I was a resident if I was cut out for research or academic science, I would have said ‘no way,’” Signore said. “My life and journey to the NICHD was quite different and unique, but then I think to myself, ‘I’ve been prepared for this, and it’s been by the University of Florida.’ They cultivated the skills and tools and ways of working and thinking and caring that have served me so well. I’m so grateful.”