Faculty Fellow Profile: Shauna Cooper
Developmental psychologist Shauna Cooper, PhD, a professor in UNC’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, is devoted to promoting well-being among young people and to facilitating racial equity. She serves as a faculty fellow at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) and the director of UNC’s Strengths, Assets, and Resilience (StAR) Lab, which uses culturally relevant conceptual and theoretical frameworks to study positive development among African American adolescents and youth.
The StAR Lab acts as both a research and training space centered around promoting positive outcomes for racialized youth. Researchers focus on key stressors, such as racial discrimination, as well as contextual concepts including how community, family, and school contexts shape the development and well-being of young people of color. Much of Cooper’s work focuses on these questions using a developmental science lens. She interrogates the experiences of children and youth and then examines how these experiences may differ for racialized youth who experience challenges such as disproportionate school discipline and structural inequities.
In addition to examining how the school experience shapes children of color, Cooper and her team explore the distinctive experiences for racialized youth in terms of issues related to family, including messages around culture, race, and developing a sense of cultural identity. Cooper translates science so that it leads to solutions-based impact, whether that is through policy, programming, or practice. She says that looking at scientific questions in connection to how people live every day is the foundation of her work.
Cooper’s work is often connected to community partners because she believes her work as a scientist is best informed by those working directly with youth. She is committed to having scientists, universities, and researchers partner with organizations and communities to answer questions. She believes that this close alignment between community and research is critical to advancing science and promoting positive outcomes for youth. “Working with community leaders and members helps me be a better developmental scientist by enabling me to think about research questions within the context of the realities in which youth and their families live today,” she says.
“Working with community leaders and members helps me be a better developmental scientist by enabling me to think about research questions within the context of the realities in which youth and their families live today,” says Cooper.
Another focus of Cooper’s research over the past decade has explored how fathers can best support their children during adolescence (read more about Cooper's research on fathers in this Endeavor's article, The Father Effect). This has also evolved into a focus on mentoring and examining how to ensure that mentors are providing interactions that lead to positive outcomes for their adolescent mentees. Partnering with the Youth Mentoring Collaborative, based in Durham, Cooper and colleagues seek to better support organizational leaders and mentors in championing youth and promoting youth leadership development. “We are looking at how we can take science and translate it into programming and practice that allow us to better support youth, not just in their development, but in how they think about themselves as leaders in their community,” says Cooper.
Serving as a mentor to earlier career scholars is critical to Cooper. “The StAR Lab’s training model is designed so that I am one of the many voices who help cultivate the development of not just researchers, but those who are leaders of tomorrow,” she says. Although she is on leave this semester as a policy fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, she continues to be actively involved with her colleagues, noting that mentoring cannot go on leave and still produce good results.
“Over the years, FPG has been good at bringing together folks with knowledge from diverse fields so they can think about cross-cutting issues,” says Cooper. “That feels transformative. In psychology and neuroscience, it is not every day that we interface with folks in education or in public health. FPG is a space where we cross those boundaries in ways that leave us better as faculty and as scientists.”
Becoming an FPG faculty fellow in 2019 provided Cooper with the opportunity to interact with colleagues throughout UNC who have similar research interests. “Over the years, FPG has been good at bringing together folks with knowledge from diverse fields so they can think about cross-cutting issues,” she says. “That feels transformative. In psychology and neuroscience, it is not every day that we interface with folks in education or in public health. FPG is a space where we cross those boundaries in ways that leave us better as faculty and as scientists.”
As a faculty fellow, Cooper hopes to help the Institute better connect with communities and community-based organizations to explore how to impact children and their well-being across their lifespan. “I am committed to taking my knowledge and translating it in ways that help leave the world in a better place than I found it,” she says.