Start Early. Start well.

January 24, 2022

Institute Fellowship Supports UNMC Student's Research Into Mental Health of New Mothers

By Erin Duffy

As a nurse in an Omaha hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, Morgan Staver witnessed just how difficult a sick baby’s prolonged hospital stay could be for families, who often cycled through feelings of guilt and worry. 

“There was a lot of anxiety, trauma, post-traumatic stress, just a lot of other mental health issues that we weren't necessarily able to catch,” she said. “And so I dug into the research, and I decided that I wanted to be a person who would be driving the research that drives the evidence-based care. With that, I’d be able to have a bigger reach than just working with these babies’ parents one-on-one.”

Staver, a doctoral student in nursing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is currently researching the mental health struggles of mothers whose babies required a stay

Morgan StaverMorgan Staver

in the NICU, including interviewing mothers across the globe whose babies were born slightly premature or ill. Her mixed-methods study, which she hopes will lead to more recognition of the signs and prevalence of maternal distress and improvements in mental health screening and referral practices for NICU parents, is supported by funding from the Graduate Scholars program at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

The application period for the next round of Graduate Scholars funding is now open, with applications due by March 31. The Buffett Institute is again offering the one-year fellowship, worth up to $25,000, to doctoral students affiliated with the University of Nebraska System whose research touches on the development, education, and well-being of young children, prenatal to 8 years old. The Institute is especially interested in research that focuses on innovative solutions to risk factors, such as poverty, that affect child development. 

Learn more about the program and eligibility requirements:

The Graduate Scholars program began in 2016. Since then, scholars have used the funding to examine a wide range of topics related to early childhood, including health disparities, the early math skills of preschoolers, neuroscience research on primates, and in Staver’s case, the stress, depression, and anxiety felt by mothers with babies in NICUs. 

“Having worked as a NICU nurse, Morgan has a unique perspective,” said Tiffany A. Moore, one of Staver’s faculty mentors and an associate professor at UNMC’s College of Nursing. “This project funded by the Graduate Scholars program will be the critical foundation to build her program of research to address maternal distress from NICU hospitalizations.”

The Institute encourages diverse candidates to apply, including international students, and is seeking out research projects across a wide range of disciplines–education, social work, music, art, psychology, and others–with ties to early childhood.

“We’re looking for innovative project ideas, including from fields that aren’t traditionally represented in early childhood research,” said Greg Welch, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of research and evaluation. “This is a great opportunity for graduate students to receive funding to conduct and enhance their research.” 

Staver is using the funding to gather quantitative data, like how common conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD are among mothers whose babies spent at least two weeks in the NICU, and how those diagnoses can overlap. She’s also conducting interviews with nearly two dozen women who describe their sleepless nights and feelings of helplessness. Some are several years removed from their NICU experience and can look back with more distance and clarity. Others are in the thick of it. 

“I’m just amazed by the strength of these women and the bravery of them to share their experiences,” Staver said. “You know, this is a traumatic event, it's a lot of loss of control, a lot of guilt, a lot of blaming themselves. And you know it's not easy for them to talk about, but these participants are wanting and eager to participate, because they want to make sure that people who are in their position in the future don't have to suffer.”

The stress that NICU parents have experienced often goes beyond typical “baby blues,” with much higher rates of postpartum depression and anxiety compared to parents of healthy babies, Staver said. 

“I would love to see a more global screening tool that includes more of these global distress experiences so that we can refer these people on to treatment earlier in the process instead of people finding therapy at two, three, four years down the road when the damage has been done to the child’s development, their attachment, their bonding,” she said. 

Kathleen M. Hanna, a professor at the UNMC College of Nursing and Staver’s other faculty mentor, said Staver is “passionate about improving the health of mothers and infants through her clinical practice and research career. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute Graduate Scholars program has provided invaluable support to Ms. Staver to conduct her research, addressing this significant problem.”

Staver, who’s on track to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, encouraged her fellow graduate students to apply for the Graduate Scholars program. In addition to the benefits of the funding, which gave her time to focus on her dissertation, she said the act of submitting a proposal helped her refine her ideas. 

“Just the act of writing this proposal was a huge learning experience for me,” she said. 


Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.

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