The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Research Staff

Laura DeFina, MD

Laura DeFina, MD
President and Chief Executive Officer
Chief Science Officer

Laura DeFina, MD has been the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Cooper Institute since 2014. She joined The Cooper Institute Research Division in 2009 and has served as Chief Science Officer since 2013, where she has authored manuscripts on a variety of prevention topics, including brain health, cardiorespiratory fitness, and healthy aging. The Cooper Institute’s mission is to promote life-long health and wellness in adults and children through research and education. Our vision is two-fold: First, to spread the need for personal responsibility for mind and body wellness through peer-reviewed scientific evidence from the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, the largest study in the world with measured fitness. Second, to assure that all children have access to quality physical education and recess as well as fitness assessment to ensure that they are gaining the health-benefits of regular physical activity. The Cooper Institute undertakes these initiatives with renowned partners including Stanford University, University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center, NFL Play 60 programs, and the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

Dr. DeFina spent the three years prior practicing preventive medicine at Cooper Clinic. Formerly, she practiced Geriatric Medicine in the Baylor Senior Health Network for 10 years. Additionally, she completed her post-graduate training in Internal Medicine in the U.S. Army at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was last stationed at Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center, and received numerous military honors including a US Army Meritorious Service medal. She earned her Doctor of Medicine from George Washington University School of Medicine where she was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society.

In 2013, Dr. DeFina was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to the Texas Council for Alzheimer’s disease and Related Disorders. She serves on the Prevention and Brain Health Group for the Texas State Plan on Alzheimer's disease. Currently, she is a member of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Physical Activity committee and a member of the American Council on Exercise Prescription for Activity Task Force. She has completed Leadership North Texas as well as the Stagen Integral Leadership Program and is actively involved in local and regional community affairs.

The Cooper Institute is a non-profit 501(c)3 dedicated to promoting life-long health and wellness through research and education.

Stephen W. Farrell, Ph.D., FACSM

Benjamin L. Willis MD, MPH
Senior Investigator

Dr. Farrell received his Ph.D. from Texas Woman’s University in 1996 with a major emphasis in Exercise Physiology and a secondary emphasis in Nutrition. His M.S. (Exercise Physiology) and B.S. (Physical Education) degrees were earned at the University of South Carolina and Springfield College, respectively.

He has been with The Cooper Institute since 1982, and spent his early years at the Institute delivering comprehensive employee wellness programs for school districts and insurance companies. Dr. Farrell then spent many years the Adult Education Division, developing and teaching a wide variety of health and fitness workshops held worldwide. He has been a lead author or co-author on many peer-reviewed research publications, and is a Fellow of The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). His primary research focus is the relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness, adiposity, and various adverse health outcomes. He has presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine on numerous occasions. Dr. Farrell holds the position of chair of The Cooper Institute’s Review Board (IRB), which reviews and approves all proposed research studies. He has also served as a consultant for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Benjamin L. Willis MD, MPH

Benjamin L. Willis MD, MPH

Dr. Willis received his MD from UT Southwestern Medical School in 1980 with post doctoral residency training at LSU in New Orleans and is a board certified ophthalmologist. He received his MPH from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth in 2006 with an emphasis in biostatistics. He has been with the Cooper Institute since 2007 as staff epidemiologist and has authored peer-reviewed journal publications and presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. Dr. Willis has directed the development of the Cooper-UT Southwestern Biobank at CI and works in concert with UT Southwestern collaborators. His current research interests include healthy aging and the relationship of midlife fitness and modifiable risk factors with health outcomes in Medicare patients.

Beth Wright, PhD

Beth Wright, PhDc
Director of Data Management

Beth Wright is the Director of Data Management for The Cooper Institute. She leads a talented team of database specialists in support of the Institute’s data management needs.

Beth began her professional career with the Institute as an intern and moved to full-time staff member shortly thereafter. The Institute provides her the unique opportunity to combine her undergraduate (BSPH in Biostatistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and graduate degrees (MS in Wellness and Fitness from Middle Tennessee State University; PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Texas at Houston Health Science Center) to explore the relationships between health behaviors and outcomes. Her responsibilities at the Institute have included co-authorship on numerous scientific publications, project management, data management and analysis, as well as morbidity and mortality surveillance for the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. She maintains membership in the American College of Sports Medicine and the Society for Epidemiologic Research.