In Memoriam: Deborah Kemler Nelson

Deborah Kemler Nelson

On November 13, 2023, our field lost a shining star.  Professor Deborah Kemler Nelson, the Centennial Chair Emerita of Swarthmore College, passed away surrounded by her loving family. Debby got her PhD in psychology from Brown University with her mentor Bryan Shepp. After becoming a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, she moved to Swarthmore College where she spent the bulk of her productive career. You might recognize her name from her service to the field as a member of the editorial boards of Child Development, Cognition and Developmental Psychology.  Her work centered on two core questions. First, she asked how children learn to affix name to objects.  Do children learn a word “chair” and then generalize the word to all objects of the same shape (a theory that was fostered by her accomplished graduate student Professor Linda Smith)?  Or might children also be attuned to an object’s function? That is, do they assume what an artifact was meant to do – even if it is a broken exemplar? Her brilliant work leading to the conclusion that function was a key driver in word learning expanded our understanding of how children mastered concepts and broaden their vocabulary.  Her second line of research investigated the ways in which the prosody or melodies of language can be used to find grammatical chunks like clauses, phrases and words, in the flow of continuous speech. There she found that babies were keenly attuned to almost indiscernible pauses and to the elongation of vowels to “bootstrap” (as Lila Gleitman wrote) their way into language. Debby was a superb methodologist – one of the best in our field. She was a generous intellectual who invited students into her laboratory to be a part of her science. And she was a kind woman and friend of the utmost integrity. She will be sorely missed, but her legacy of work will live well beyond her.

By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Friend and co-author

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