Dr. Van de Walle's interest in early conceptual development began when she worked as an undergraduate research assistant in an infant perception lab at Swarthmore College. After obtaining her Ph.D. at Cornell University, she completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at NYU before coming to Rutgers-Newark in the Fall of 1998. Her research investigates the perceptual and conceptual information infants employ in coming to better understand the environment around them and how the early acquisition of language influences this understanding.
For example, she is interested in how infants learn to distinguish broad, ontological categories such as animate vs. inanimate objects and what they know about these categories. One of thr newest research projects, a collaboration with her graduate student Diana Del Console, employs an eye-tracking system to ask whether infants understand that the behavior of animate objects like people or animals is meaningfully directed at the surrounding environment in a way that is quite distinct from that of inanimates. She is also interested in how children learn to trace specific individual objects over time and occlusion—an ability so effortless and so basic to adults that we rarely give it a second thought. Most recently, in collaboration with her colleague Jennifer Austin and her graduate student Cassandra Foursha, have begun to investigate toddlers’ understanding of how word order conveys meaning in sentences. They hope soon to expand this research to investigate syntactic knowledge in children who are in the process of acquiring two different languages.