Faculty Highlights: Marianella Casasola

Lois and Mel Turkman Endowed Assistant Professor of Human Development

College of Human Ecology

Photo of Marianella Casasola

Faculty Highlights: Marianella Casasola

How did the daughter of two Costa Rican immigrants who didn't speak English and had little education, parking cars and delivering newspapers and food for a living in Los Angeles, make it through private schools and college without financial aid and then land a faculty position at Cornell?

Marianella Casasola, assistant professor of human development, isn't quite sure how her parents managed to pay tuition for the private schools she attended. What she does know, however, is that they stressed education and discipline. It was also her parents who, behind the scenes, steered her academic path toward her field of infant cognitive development.

"When I was 12, my mother got pregnant and soon I had a little brother," says Casasola, 35, who joined the Cornell faculty in 2000 just after obtaining her Ph.D. in developmental psychology with minors in linguistics and neuropsychology at the University of Texas-Austin. Since her parents were busy starting a new wholesale food business, Casasola spent a lot of time caring for her baby brother.

"It was my first experience with an infant and I was very interested in getting him to be the best he could be, reading to him, using flash cards and so on," she says. "I realized I loved infants but wanted more than to be a homemaker, which is often the norm for Latin American women."

At the University of California-Berkeley, Casasola took on a premed curriculum with a major in psychology and Spanish literature (a love inspired by her father's love of literature). In a psycholinguistics class, Casasola became fascinated with how infants learn language and, at the same time, was intrigued by the ease with which her cousin learned English shortly after arriving in the United States During a semester abroad in Mexico, she conducted a field study in Chiapas comparing Mexican children's acquisition of Spanish to U.S. children in Mexico learning Spanish.

"I realized how interested I was in what babies are thinking, how thought underlies language and how language in turn may influence your thinking," says Casasola, whose research today focuses on how language shapes and develops concepts, how kids learn words for objects, action and spatial relations and how underlying concepts are expressed differently across languages.

Casasola mentors almost two dozen students, both graduate and undergraduate, and has ongoing studies with infants at eight different ages.

"For example, we examine infants' ability to discriminate the spatial relations between objects as well as their ability to group these events into spatial categories," explains Casasola, whose husband, Garin Danner, joined her in Ithaca after their engagement and they married shortly thereafter. Danner works as a therapist at George Junior Republic, a not-for-profit residential treatment center that provides therapeutic and rehabilitative services to emotionally disturbed adolescents.

"A portion of our research explores the degree to which infants' perceptual and cognitive abilities provide them with the meanings expressed across language-specific semantic categories," she says. "The goal of this line of research is to document not only which spatial concepts infants understand (and when they acquire these concepts), but also to delineate the processes that guide how infants acquire this understanding."

The Cornell developmental psychologist, an avid swimmer and runner when she has the time, also explores how specific linguistic input can help young children form spatial categories that they do not form in the absence of language and how language can direct infants' attention to the objects versus location in a dynamic event. She also studies whether infants learn to comprehend visual gestures as labels for objects earlier and more easily than spoken labels. "My students and I are conducting numerous experimental studies that explore developmental changes in infant cognitive development, how these abilities are recruited in the acquisition of language, and whether language can influence how infants organize their world," she explains.

Although publishing her research findings is always exciting, Casasola finds working with the students equally exhilarating. "There can be a long delay before you can assess how the research articles you publish make a difference in your field -- to me, the most immediate and noticeable differences are those I feel day to day through my interactions with students," says Casasola, who also is active in the Minority Mentoring Program in the College of Human Ecology. "I think that's one of the coolest things about being a professor, and it's really the best way I feel that I can make a difference."