Meet our researchers: Dr. Cynthia Cooper

Student Taylor Krilanovich, right, talks with Cynthia Cooper, left, an Associate Professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU’s Vancouver, Wash., campus, as they view a microscopic image of a three-day old Zebra fish used to study melanoma on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022.

Dr. Cynthia Cooper is conducting ground-breaking research in the School of Molecular Biosciences using zebrafish models to learn more about skin pigment diseases like albinism and melanoma and to develop treatments for the conditions. Dr. Cooper began her career at WSU’s Vancouver campus in 2008 after obtaining a doctorate and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington.

Last year, she was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Equity, which honors a faculty or staff member for excellence in contributing to a community of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging at WSU Vancouver.

She recently took some time to discuss her work at WSU.

What are your current research interests and what attracted you to that area?

In my lab, we use a tropical fish (zebrafish) to model the biology of human skin color and pigment cell health. Many of our zebrafish models have various types of albinism seen in humans. We are using our albinism zebrafish models to learn more about this rare disorder and to find novel treatments for albinism and a more common pigment cell disease, melanoma. My interest in this field grew at the end of my graduate school career, where I studied cell communication using cultured cells. I wanted to learn more about cell communication and growth in an animal model system. The lab I was most attracted to at the time was using zebrafish to understand early developmental mechanisms. I was lucky enough to join the lab in 2003 and learn about pigment cell biology in zebrafish.

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your research?

I would like to contribute to the body of knowledge being used to detect and treat pigment cell disease and improve lives for those impacted by pigment cell diseases.

When your career is over, what do you want to be remembered for?

I want to be remembered as a dedicated biologist, educator, and mentor for hundreds of budding scientists. 

How can your research help people and animals?

People and animals are born with albinism. While the inability to produce black pigment (melanin) is not lethal to most organisms, individuals with albinism are more susceptible to developing skin cancer, including melanoma. My lab’s work will assist with improving our understanding of albinism and the role of melanin in preventing melanoma. Additionally, zebrafish provide an excellent system for screening new treatment options for human diseases, including albinism and melanoma.

What do you enjoy about working with students?

Students constantly bring new ideas and experiences to the lab. These two things, plus their fun energy, are critical for keeping a research program fresh and relevant. I appreciate the contributions of my students very much. 

What motivates you outside of work?

Spending time with friends and family.  

What are you most proud of in your career to this point?

The impact I have had on the lives of hundreds of budding scientists over the years. Many of these students have moved on to graduate school, professional school, and amazing careers. It is incredibly rewarding to know I have helped them to realize their potential and to achieve their career paths. 

What advice would you give to younger people considering a career in science?

Learn as much as possible about your profession of interest prior to entering it. Shadow individuals in the profession to learn about their day-to-day activities and how their jobs impact their lives. These acts are the best way to know if the career is a good fit for you.

Why did you choose to come to WSU?

I applied for the position because the job duties, required experience, and location (Vancouver) were a perfect match for my family and me. Once I met with the faculty, staff, and students, I was convinced it would be a great place to build my career and begin my new adventure as a professor.