The Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Equity honors a faculty or staff member for excellence in contributing to a community of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging at WSU Vancouver. The award recognizes the individual for helping to infuse equity-mindedness throughout the campus and/or helping to build and maintain a safe, welcoming campus environment.
Associate Professor, School of Molecular Biosciences
It is in Cynthia Cooper’s DNA to be a champion of equity and diversity. Whether in a department meeting, her lab, a conference or community event, she speaks up and she listens. As her colleagues and students become more diverse in many ways, she wants to make sure they feel heard and valued.
Cooper has led work to strengthen the diversity of the sciences program and build an equitable environment that fosters success for everyone. She mentors both graduate and undergraduate students and serves as a role model. She has led efforts to recruit graduate students from historically unrepresented groups by serving as an ambassador for WSU Vancouver at conferences, and she has worked with high school students participating in the Technology Magnet Program. She stays connected with her alma mater, California State University in Sacramento, to answer questions from students about graduate school and life as a biology professor.
Her own story as a Black woman in the sciences is a powerful motivator to students interested in the biological sciences. She encourages young people, regardless of who they are, that going into a STEM field is an achievable option.
Cooper, who joined WSU Vancouver in 2008, has spent most of her career studying the relationship of pigmentation to human diseases, notably melanoma and albinism, using zebrafish as a model. She recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to further her research into other potentially pigment-related diseases.
Cooper has a storied reputation as a generous mentor, and the proof is that when funding has run out, many students have stayed in her lab as volunteers, sometimes even after finding full-time jobs. She welcomes high school students and undergraduates into her lab. She brings them food, takes them to dinner, works beside them even on menial tasks, trains them one-on-one to do experiments, gives them co-authorship on published papers, serves as a reference for jobs or graduate school, and generally supports them however she can—“always reminding them that they can do and achieve anything they want if they are willing to work hard to do so,” she said.
Cooper co-founded the WSU Vancouver Black Indigenous People of Color Fellowship Fund and served as faculty advisor for the African Student Association and the Black People United Student Club. She participates in the decision-making process to ensure equity in everything from building design to teaching. Her door is always open, and her warm, welcoming personality fosters teamwork. She also serves her professional community as a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the Pan American Society of Pigment Cell Research.
She enjoys sharing her work with the university and the community—to remind them, as she says, “that people of color (and of all backgrounds) are doing and achieving amazing things!”