WSU human development scientist elected as Society for Prevention Research president

Brittany Cooper promotes healthy behavior through research-backed prevention programs. Now, as the newest Society for Prevention Research (SPR) president, she hopes to make an even more extensive impact on community wellbeing.

Professional head shot of Brittany Cooper.
Brittany Cooper, an associate professor and Extension specialist in WSU’s Department of Human Development, is the newest Society for Prevention Research president. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Cooper)

“I’m honored that my colleagues think I will be a good leader,” said Cooper, an associate professor and Extension specialist in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development. “It’s nice timing in my career path. I’ve been fortunate to benefit from this organization for a long time, and I see it as my academic home outside of WSU. It’s an exciting privilege to contribute to a group that means so much to me.”

Cooper is one of the youngest presidents of SPR, which was established in 1991 as the primary professional organization for prevention researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. The society promotes an evidence-based understanding of risk factors that influence behavioral health problems like substance use disorder, anxiety, and depression, using research to design and implement effective programs and policies that improve public health.

Prevention science was not always on Cooper’s radar. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, she envisioned becoming a marriage and family therapist. However, after learning more about prevention science and human development while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she realized she wanted to study how health, wellbeing, and skill development can help avert behavioral problems.

“What attracted me to prevention science was understanding how individuals and families develop over time and how the context in which they live can promote healthy or unhealthy development,” Cooper said. “It was a different perspective than some of the psychology classes I was taking.”

After a year in the AmeriCorps, Cooper earned a master’s degree and PhD in human development and family studies from Pennsylvania State University. She joined WSU as an assistant professor in 2012, when the prevention science program was still in its infancy.

“I was drawn to the program because of its interdisciplinary nature,” Cooper said. “We have faculty across multiple units, and we’re not bound to our own discipline’s views. We’re consistently pulling from different areas and thinking outside the box as we work to solve different social problems.”

Much of Cooper’s research has focused on substance use prevention and youth and family wellbeing. She highly values the translational aspect of her work, which involves using the results of controlled studies to implement effective prevention programming and policies in collaboration with state partners and others outside of the university. As a youth and family Extension specialist, Cooper also develops evidence-based trainings and workshops for prevention practitioners to use in their communities.

“That’s why prevention science is such an exciting field,” Cooper said. “It’s about using research to develop effective social programs and then partnering with communities to disseminate them where they’re needed most. Taking the research and applying it has always really appealed to me.”

As SPR president, a commitment that spans four years, Cooper will oversee the board of the directors and serve as SPR’s representative to federal government agencies seeking guidance on prevention science policies and programming. She will also help organize the society’s annual conference and assist with the launch of a five-year strategic plan, among other responsibilities.

“SPR is fortunate to have dedicated and talented researchers and leaders like Dr. Cooper assuming the president’s role,” WSU Department of Human Development Interim Chair Deborah Handy said. “She has helped advance the work of graduate students and colleagues and helped make meaningful health-related community impacts. She is a natural and thoughtful leader who will continue to guide the important work of the organization and its members.”

In her new role, Cooper hopes to strengthen SPR’s collaboration with community-based, state-level, and federal-level policymakers and practitioners. She will also strive to increase membership of individuals who are not primarily researchers but are still instrumental in the real-world implementation of prevention science research.

Cooper is especially excited to work with the next generation of prevention scientists through SPR’s early career mentoring program.

“I benefited tremendously from the mentoring I received through the organization,” she said. “It’s part of why I was so excited to join the prevention science program at WSU. Mentoring the next generation is a great opportunity to have a broader impact that extends beyond my research at WSU.”