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5 Questions for a Scientist: Neuroscientist Debra Cooper

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.

Get to know Debra

Occupation: Postdoctoral Fellow
Institution: University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, TX
Field: Neuroscience
Focus: Substances of Abuse, Behavioral Pharmacology

Debra is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, TX, in the Center for Addiction Research. She received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Emory University in 2013. Both her graduate and postdoctoral work focus on understanding and treating drug abuse. She will transition into science policy with the California Council on Science and Technology soon. To learn more about Debra, connect with her on LinkedIn at

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
My graduate work used animal models to investigate potential medical treatments to prevent relapse to cocaine abuse. Currently, in my postdoc, I’m still using animal models, but have shifted my focus to explore pathways in the brain that are associated with vulnerability to developing cocaine abuse.

2. When did you first become interested in your field?
I have been interested in the brain and everything involving the brain since I was in elementary school (after I did a small project on the brain). My interest in studying drug abuse arose through psychology courses in undergrad. I found those courses or segments of courses the most interesting, and I wanted to discover more.

3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
My favorite part about science is that you’re always learning. Whether you’re learning a new technical skill, a new finding from another lab, or results that you weren’t expecting from your own experiment, there is always new information.

4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
A typical day for me involves some combination of doing research in the lab, reading, and bouncing ideas around with my colleagues. The ratio of research to reading to brainstorming varies depending on what experiments are currently going on, but there is some combination.

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
There are so many ways to get exposed to or be involved in science, many of which might be in your own backyard. The first and easiest way is to read about it through blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc. Teachers also are a great resource. You can always ask your teachers if they know any fun experiments that they can show you or know of any programs that you can sign up for.

image credit: debra cooper