Anne Cutler’s exuberant life of science

A recent discovery drew on two groups of 30-year-old Dutch-speaking adults. One group was adopted from Korea between 3 and 6 months, or around 17 months, old and with no further experience of Korean. The control group was 30-year-old native Dutch-speaking adults. Both groups were given intensive training in identifying three Korean-like “t” sounds. These sounds differ from sounds used in Dutch, which has only one “t” sound.

Anne Cutler in 1971.

Astonishingly, both the earlier and later adoptee groups learned the distinction more quickly than the control group. Cutler and her team had discovered that as infants the adoptees had unconsciously acquired a complete compilation of Korean sounds by 3 months of age. The adoptees were able to not only hear but also produce the Korean sounds better than the native Dutch control group.

Cutler’s findings from infant studies inform the identification and treatments for infants and children at risk or delayed in their speech-language development. This lifetime research contributed to advocacy in Australia for mandatory testing of newborns’ hearing.

Elizabeth Anne Cutler was born in 1945 in Victoria and educated in Tasmania. She often attributed her love and aptitude for languages ​​to her acute hearing and listening abilities, which she considered genetic; her grandfather had been a radio engineer and great-aunt a pianist. Cutler was quoted as saying, “Findings in the literature seem to indicate that it’s possible. People with keen hearing are good at distinguishing sounds in foreign languages.”

Cutler sometimes reflected, factually without boasting, that she had actually never had to apply for a job. Such was her intellect, her scholarship and academic trajectory, doors just opened. She taught German at Monash University, then completed her PhD in psycholinguistics at the University of Texas. After postdoctoral fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Sussex, she worked for 11 years as a research scientist at the Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge in the UK.

In 1993, she was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (the first female director of MPI, out of 180 directors at the time). In 2013, she returned to Australia to the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behavior and Development at Western Sydney University, and was instrumental in the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

Cutler championed the cause of women in academia. She advocated for quotas to address gender imbalance and inspired new generations of female researchers. Her work in this area was prompted by what she had experienced. In countries around the world, she was repeatedly surprised how few women were in research positions.

She thought deeply and criticized the sociocultural sources of this imbalance, and was acknowledged within Virginia Valian’s landmark book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Her desire to challenge 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 others to come.

Cutler’s commitment to gender equity did not stop at commentary. In 2011, upon retiring from the MPI, she worked to get travel grants to support her female graduate students getting into overseas labs for a postdoctoral fellowship. In June 2022, in her last week of life, as she succumbed to an opportunistic lung infection in Nijmegen, and realizing she would not make it to a conference in Spain, Cutler arranged for her prepaid registration to fund the travel of a student from Africa instead. Western Sydney University will establish a new fellowship scheme in Cutler’s name to support Australian women researchers traveling internationally, including financial support for co-travelling children.

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In the memories of colleagues who knew her, what also stands out is Cutler’s wit and humor, and her love of good food, fine wine, and great coffee. Through a lifetime devoted to science internationally, Cutler had friendships across the world, wide networks, and strong collaborations built over decades. On arrival in a strange city, she always seemed to somehow know where to find a fine restaurant.

Anne Cutler’s lifetime achievements were recognized by no fewer than eight scientific academies. She was elected to the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2008 and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2009. In 1999, Cutler was the first woman scientist to receive the Spinoza Prize of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. In 2008, she was elected Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, and in 2015, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. The title of Distinguished Professor was conferred on her at Western Sydney University in 2018, and, in 2020, Cutler was inducted into the British Academy.

Anne Cutler delivering the first public lecture, 'How the language you speak guides the way you listen' in the ARC Center of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language in 2015.

Anne Cutler delivering the first public lecture, ‘How the language you speak guides the way you listen’ in the ARC Center of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language in 2015. Credit:Center of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language

Despite such accolades, Cutler remained level-headed and inquiring in her work. She loved competitive intellectual exchange and was also a very talented teacher, inviting her listeners to join in asking a question, stepping them through premises and evidence and arriving at a compelling conclusion. She supported the twin goals of research excellence and social equity in Australia and was proud to be associated with Western Sydney University and with its flagship research institute The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behavior and Development, whose reputation she amplified.

As late as 2021 Cutler taught undergraduates at Western Sydney about spoken language processing in an introductory semester-length subject for speech pathology students, modestly never revealing her international standing, but giving them a rare rundown on the science of language, from the very person who led the field.

Anne Cutler is survived by her husband, Bill Sloman, and sister Felicity Barr.

Prepared by Anne Cutler’s colleagues at Western Sydney University.

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