Distinguished Professor (Elizabeth) Anne Cutler FRS

Distinguished Professor (Elizabeth) Anne Cutler FRS passed away peacefully in Radboud Hospital in Nijmegen, the Netherlands on 7 June 2022.

Distinguished Professor Anne Cutler

Professor Anne Cutler was a world renowned pioneer whose contributions advanced the scientific understanding of spoken language processing, and shaped the field as it is known today. Her research centred on human listeners’ recognition of spoken language, and in particular on how the brain’s processes of decoding speech are shaped by language-specific listening experience. She was a prolific scholar whose work had global reach. She devoted her life to the pursuit of scientific excellence, making vital contributions in research, theoretical engagement, and service to the field.

Anne studied languages and psychology at universities in Melbourne, Berlin and Bonn, taught German at Monash University and was awarded her PhD in psycholinguistics from the University of Texas. After postdoctoral fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Sussex, she took a position at the Medical Research Council: Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge and, in 1993, she became Director at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 1995, she became Professor of Comparative Psycholinguistics at the Radboud University Nijmegen, and, in 2006, a part-time Research Professor at the MARCS Auditory Laboratories at the then University of Western Sydney and full-time from 2013.

Anne Cutler was officially recognised by a remarkable number of learned societies across the globe, a fact that reflects the breadth of her research findings across disciplines – linguistics, psycholinguistics, developmental psychology, physics, computer science, engineering, and film. Much of her work was ground-breaking in its interdisciplinarity, largely before such a term had even been coined. She was elected to eight scientific academies, including as a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK) in 2015, which noted that Anne ‘has explained some of the major puzzles concerning how listeners decode speech’. In Australia, she was elected to the Australian Academy of the Humanities (2008) and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (2009). In America, she was named as a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences (elected 2008) and a foreign member of America's oldest learned society, the American Philosophical Society (elected 2007). Anne was elected to both the Royal Academy of Sciences in the Netherlands (elected 2000) and the Netherlands’ oldest learned society, the Holland Society of Sciences (elected 2002). She was also a member of the Europe-wide Academia Europaea (elected 1999).

In 1999, she was the first woman scientist to receive the 1999 Spinoza Prize of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. She was awarded the International Speech Communication Association Medal in 2015. In 2018, Western Sydney University conferred the title ‘Distinguished Professor’ on Professor Cutler in recognition of her international standing and outstanding contributions to research, teaching, and academic citizenship. She was awarded the Silver Medal in Speech Communication by the Acoustical Society of America in 2020 for contributions to understanding speech recognition by native and non-native listeners, and leadership in speech science.

Her love of language was partly genetic according to Anne. She was quoted as saying that “Findings in the literature seem to indicate that it’s possible people with keen hearing are good at distinguishing sounds in foreign languages.” Her grandfather was a radio engineer, and his sister, her great-aunt, a pianist. She was proud of her great-aunt who, like herself, was an initiator and the first Australian woman to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London. She believed it was this heritage that informed her aptitude for and fascination with spoken language.

It is widely acknowledged that Anne’s research significantly advanced our understanding of how listeners process speech. She was the first to demonstrate that the native language has a profound influence on how speech is segmented into units (syllables in French, stress feet in English, morae in Japanese). Anne showed that listeners use abstraction to adapt quickly to phonemic categories with different speakers, rather than episodic exemplars. She also demonstrated how prosodic context aids segmentation of the speech stream and embedded a vast array of experimental findings into a coherent and widely accepted theoretical framework.

Anne had a special gift for science communication. She explained complex theories and findings in straightforward, accessible ways, in her conference presentations, in lectures and in her book Native Listening: Language experience and the recognition of spoken words.

She approached the study of spoken language as an age-old puzzle, “reverse-engineering” the intricate yet largely invisible processes of human spoken interaction.  Her pulse quickened with solid, surprising new findings and with counterintuitive hypotheses. She and her students would then create experimental conditions, often using different languages as a natural laboratory to bring perceptual and cognitive processes into relief. Indefatigable, that energy and drive toward discovery persisted through the brainstorming phases, the conference presentations and into the publications.  The written communication of her research findings, like Anne, are straightforward, concise, and precise. Her body of written work is a legacy of inestimable value and depth.

Distinguished Professor Anne Cutler

Anne’s research delivered impact that enhanced the lives of many. This includes her developmental research, such as longitudinal studies of auditory and speech perception of infants and children. Her developmental contributions include research conducted in the BabyLabs at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics under her direction in Nijmegen, which she established using her Spinoza Proze funds, and at MARCS Institute in Western Sydney. This work demonstrated the vital importance of the abilities of newborns’ and young infants’ to abstract principles from spoken language input, allowing them to acquire both perception and production of their native language. Such evidence provided a base for the development of Australia’s Draft Standards and subsequently the National Framework for Neonatal Hearing Screening.

Anne will be remembered by the students and colleagues from around the world who she has mentored throughout her career. They know and cherish her as an intellectual leader, champion, advocate and a rigorous and unstintingly supportive and inspiring mentor who helped launch the careers of generations of research leaders. She acknowledged that she was driven by the wish to create room for talented researchers. Her intellectual and personal investment in the next generation of researchers realised the emergence of two of today’s leaders in the field.

The first woman to be awarded the Spinoza Prize, Anne used the funds from this award to establish the MPI BabyLab. Throughout her career she challenged gender inequity in academia which she had seen first-hand.

Informed by her own experiences, Dr Cutler championed the cause of women in science, she advocated for quotas to address the gender imbalance and at the same time she inspired a new generation of female researchers within and beyond her field of psycholinguistics. Her desire to challenge this inequity was not for her own career, of which she said ‘I live in blissful ignorance of all my missed opportunities’, but for the careers of those to come. One of her recent PhD graduates recalled a particularly contextualising and encouraging word of guidance from Anne: “People come into science wanting their contribution to radicalise the field. BUT! What they don’t realise is that science is like a house, and all that is really required of them is to find their brick and add it to the house that we call science.” Her enthusiasm for making scientific discoveries was infectious and inspirational.

With her brilliant wit and superb sense of humour, she was a clever lyricist and Anne’s acute sense of taste, perhaps acute like her ear, was piqued with fine wine, exquisite food, and good coffee. She struck awe and built decades-long friendships, collaborations, and networks the world over.

Throughout her long and stellar career Anne’s passion for her work never faded, she recently stated “What I do know is that researchers are always interested in learning new things, whether they are 40 or 70. There’s still so much we don’t know about how babies learn language and this continues to fascinate me.”

This lifetime of curiosity and discovery will see Distinguished Professor Anne Cutler continue to be celebrated for her research and teaching, her contributions were unique, ground-breaking and life-changing. Her influence on the field and its members will carry forward through the many researchers she has trained and guided and the still-growing numbers of studies her work has inspired.

Anne’s legacy will be commemorated by Western Sydney University through the establishment of the Anne Cutler Scholar program and a research site honouring her life and work.

The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development will be holding a celebration of Anne’s career, with a date to be announced.

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