Meet Past President of ASA, Dr. Patricia Kuhl
Dr. Patricia Kuhl on the night she was awarded ASA’s Gold Medal in Paris, France in 2008.
Dr. Patricia Kuhl, Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America since 1982, was the vice president of the Society from 1996-1997 and served as the first female president from 1999-2000. Dr. Kuhl was awarded the Silver Medal in Speech Communication in 1997 for her contributions to speech perception and production, the Gold Medal for her work on early learning and brain development in 2008, and has played an active role in the Society throughout her membership.
Dr. Kuhl obtained her B.A. in both Speech Communication and Psychology from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 1967 and then moved to the University of Minnesota where she earned her M.A. in Speech Science (1971) and her Ph.D. in both Speech Science and Psychology (1973). In 1977, after a post-doctoral position at the Central Institute for the Deaf, Dr. Kuhl started as an assistant professor in the department of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, where she continues to this day. Currently, she holds the Bezos Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning, and is also co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS)—which she and her husband started in 2004—and professor of speech and hearing sciences. She is not the only hard-working academic in her family. Pat’s husband, Andrew Meltzoff, is a professor of psychology and co-director at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, and Pat’s daughter, Katherine Stavropoulos, is an assistant professor in special education at the University of California at Riverside. Dr. Kuhl is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
We had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Kuhl about her fascinating research on the human brain and language development, how she navigated earlier days in the ASA as one of the only females, and her experience as ASA president.
Tell us a little about your career path and journey to where you are now.
My fascination with language started when I was young. One year my extended family had a reunion. This was the first time I met one of my nieces who is deaf; I was ten and she was four. I come from a huge Minnesota family, and when we get together there are enough people to form multiple teams for a game of baseball. So we were out playing baseball when she had a ball coming directly at her. We all screamed at her, “duck!!” but she didn’t respond. She had been turned away from the ball and it hit her directly in the head. I remember being struck that she couldn’t hear us. “She can hear absolutely nothing. What are we doing to help her?” I asked my parents. “Will she learn how to speak sometime in her life?” I remember my parents saying that they didn’t know that she ever would. This was crazy to me, that you could live your whole life and not speak or understand. I thought it was such a tragedy and someone ought to be able to do something about that.
In 1968, I was a graduate student in speech and hearing sciences at the University of Minnesota and fascinated by language deficits in people who had been diagnosed with aphasia, which is a language deficit caused by brain damage following a stroke. My initial assignment as a graduate student was on the aphasia ward in neurology at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Minneapolis. I was part of a team of residents and neurology faculty who provided language therapy to patients with aphasia. An important part of that experience was discussing research data during grand rounds. At that time, there were no brain imaging devices, so brain autopsies were critical to our understanding of the mechanics of the brain. During autopsy, the chief of pathology prepared one-millimeter slices of the brain of a patient who had been diagnosed with aphasia. I had often treated the patient as the therapist while they were alive, giving them elaborate tests to understand their language abilities. Can they understand sentences? Can they produce sentences? Then, during the autopsies, my assignment was to present the clinical observations in support of a hypothesis about where the specific telltale signs of brain damage—hairline cracks and noticeably softer tissue due to the stroke—would appear in the various slices we viewed of the patient’s brain.
I remember treating a pediatric neurosurgeon who had had a stroke and could only utter a single syllable, ‘Ta.’ I treated him for a year so I knew a lot about him. When he died, it was really profound to be in that autopsy room and see his brain and realize I knew that person. I had this emotional reaction, but I also had this intellectual drive to say, “look I know what he could and couldn’t do.” His speech understanding was quite good, the problem was he couldn’t articulate and produce speech. When it came time, I said, “I think we should see more damage in Broca’s Area, where speech production is controlled, than in areas related to speech comprehension.” Sure enough, it looked like the tissue in that area of the brain was softer, grey, and had more cracks in the motor regions. It was sobering, and challenging, and yes, it was an exciting experience. I think that was why I was bitten. The idea that you could connect brain to behavior, as crude as that was, was exciting. This is still what my institute is doing—we are trying to connect the ability of a person to learn and know things to the brain circuitry.
My experience at the VA was short lived because within nine months of my arriving at the VA my supervisor succumbed to cancer and I was back at the university asking another mentor, psychologist Jim Jenkins, how to continue my research. Jenkins’ reply changed my life: “Why not start at the other end of the continuum – study language in baby brains rather than aging adults – no one is doing that,” he said. I never looked back, and was forever grateful for the advice.
Now I study early language learning and the development of the infant brain. This work has taken me to three White House conferences to speak: the Clinton White House in 1997, the Bush White House in 2001, and the Obama White House in 2014. I was the first in the world to put a baby in a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine, a non-invasive way of studying brain activity. The frontiers are wide open to study areas like the developing brain and how language comes about in a child. It’s such exciting work, and this is why I haven’t retired yet.
What inspired you to run for ASA president?
Ken Stevens, an engineer at MIT and later an ASA President (1976-1977), was always very active at ASA meetings. Ken would attend and comment on many of the talks and poster presentations, and he always came to mine and had a lot of comments. At most meetings, we’d find time to have coffee, lunch, or dinner to debate theory and data. At one meeting, he asked whether he could nominate me for the ASA Executive Council. He explained to me that doing great science wasn’t really enough to advance the field completely – to do that you had to volunteer and keep the ASA alive and looking forward. Ken was also keen to advance the careers of women and noted that there were very few women represented at any level of ASA governance. He said that we had to diversify governance if we were ever going to attract more women and be more racially diverse in the ASA. Who could disagree with that argument? I said yes and was elected to Council. My decision to run set up a cascading series of elections: from Council to Vice President, and then finally to President of the ASA. I’m very proud to have been elected the first woman President of the Acoustical Society of America.
What was the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? And as ASA president?
I think balancing scientific career goals, marriages, children, and service to society is a huge challenge for anyone, but for women especially. It really is difficult to “have it all” as they say.
Timing in life is particularly important. I waited until I was a full professor before I had my daughter. I was so rapidly climbing the academic ladder I hadn’t really had time to do it. It was an era when a lot of women were making the decision not to have kids and focus on their career. Women have a hard time with this. They are the ones who bear children. Women will spend more time than their partners at raising their children and doing all the household maintenance to bring that culture together. Many women are also in fields where they are discriminated against, yet still strive to reach the highest levels of achievement. I think this balancing act is not simple and there have to be discussions amongst partners about all of this, arranging life so that both people can succeed. That takes planning and energy. I think it’s trickier for women than men for all these reasons. Looking back though, there isn’t a single opportunity I wished I’d passed on because it was too difficult. I was all in. That meant doing exciting science, having a wonderful family (my daughter is herself now an assistant professor married to a physicist whose work brings him to the ASA meetings!), and volunteering for the ASA – all of which have brought me great joy.
Dr. Kuhl lecturing at UW.
As ASA President there were no big financial crises, we were not trying to revamp the way we published journals, there were no big issues. I wanted to empower students. I wanted to get more women into the Society and increase diversity in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. So the biggest challenge for me was to make the Society more open to a variety of people. It was an interesting time. I was the first woman President and before me was Jim West, the first Black president. People’s eyes were finally opened to this goal.
What was your biggest contribution to ASA as president?
When I went to my first ASA meeting, over 50 years ago, there were so few women you could count them on one hand. I started paying attention to it because I found it so awkward. I remember I had this blue dress on, and I kept thinking I looked so out of place. I just wished I had worn black or anything that would make me look less obvious. There were maybe 15-18% women in speech communication but other TC’s had zero. This became an issue I really wanted to crack.
The few women in the Society started speaking to the men and talking about diversity. We created a Women in Acoustics Committee and a women’s lunch. We started doing things that would bring female students to the meetings–a student social, a free drink for students– and then we made sure that senior women attended those gatherings and spoke to the new women. I ran sessions where females were the organizers and brought women speakers to the Society.
These were all things I did as a leader in the Society, but as ASA President specifically, I established the Student Council. We did a reasonable job of attracting students but there wasn’t a way for them to empower their ideas. Students had no way for the things they wanted, needed, or initiatives to be carried up the chain of command, except through their advisors. The Council was set up so they could have initiatives and bring ideas forward. It allowed students to be part of the governance of the ASA, and it gave them a voice for the first time. I think that that was a significant change.
What surprised you most about being an ASA president?
How much fun it was! As a first time ASA member I remember going to the conferences and taking the cheapest hotel room, but as president, you get to stay in the presidential suite! I think my first one as president was in Columbia, Ohio. The suite had a piano! It had a living room, a dining room, and of course a bedroom. The hotel staff even brought up champagne. I just thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is so amazing.’ It was also a lot of fun to plan and run the plenary sessions. I felt like I was able to affect change and communicate to people with a more powerful voice than I ever had before. I just loved every aspect of the experience.
I also remember Elaine Moran saying if you want to get anything done as president you need to plan it well in advance. Elaine was, and still is, a total genius! I remember thinking about the student council and the women’s initiatives well ahead of time and was glad I did.
ASA is constantly growing and evolving. How has ASA improved and changed since you were president?
At a recent ASA meeting someone joked that you can’t run for office now unless you’re female. I laughed because that was a sentence you would not have heard when I was a student. If you looked at the period of time from which I was president until now, the proportion of male to female presidents is getting closer (8/21 female presidents since 2000). I suspect this is similar for other leadership roles within the Society too. (For More Information)
The ASA has grown in other ways as well: the expansion of topics covered by the ASA, increased international presence, the formation of ASA Summer School, and by the continued emphasis on student members.
What attributes about yourself have helped or hindered you in your career?
It helps to be fearless! You have to have your eyes wide open for opportunity and be a little bit adventurous. You have to be led by what your passion is and I have certainly been led by mine.
My father told me from an early age that I could accomplish anything I set my sights on, and that hard work and a good education were key. My parents never indicated that life would be easy, but that working hard at something was enormously satisfying. That message was golden, and it stuck.
What person influenced your career path the most and in what way?
There are a set of people who influenced my career path very strongly – psychoacousticians James D. Miller, Ira J. Hirsh, Dixon W. Ward, engineers Kenneth N. Stevens and Dennis H. Klatt, psychologists Alvin Liberman, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and Peter D. Eimas. Each of these people challenged me scientifically to debate the ideas and data, inspired me to design the best possible experiments, and encouraged me to continue to believe in the data and the power to craft theory. I’m deeply grateful to each of them.
Probably my strongest mentor at ASA was Ken Stevens. As an outsider, he commented on my ideas from a totally different perspective. He was an engineer but very interested in speech. He and Dennis were working on the first speech synthesizers: machines that could talk. So they were interested in the theory of speech development and how babies developed speech. My post doc advisors—Jim Miller and Ira Hirsh—were wonderful, but they gave the perspective I already had. What was valuable about the ASA was that you could bring these people together, throw data in the arena, and everyone would want to explain it from their unique perspective.
What is one work-hack that you learned or found over your career and would recommend to others?
Recently I worked with the National Academy of Sciences on publicizing a Brief that explains to the public why early childhood education is so important, but it takes real expertise and funding to get childhood education right. It’s a bipartisan issue that we should all care about; children are our future work force. The National Academy reviewed this topic on a website entitled The Science Behind It.
You can do your science and it’s very satisfying, but we have a responsibility to explain to people why they should care. If you just spend time in the ivory tower but don’t do anything about it, the knowledge we create will just sit there. We need to push it out and let the public make decisions about what they want to do with the information. It may not be a work-hack, but a good work practice in academia is to not only be on the cutting edge of science but also ensure that the science is acted upon.
What are you working on now?
My lab group is doing incredibly interesting neuroscience experiments in which two people – a mother and baby for example – are interacting while we examine both of their brains! The baby is in a MEG machine and the mother is wired with an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap. We co-register brain activity to examine how social interaction affects joint brain activation. Preliminary data suggest that there’s actually something to the idea that two people can “be in sync”! I’m investigating the power of social interaction for infant learning and development and have argued that the “social brain” is the “gate” to cognitive learning. If you’re intrigued, see some of my studies listed below!
Dr. Kuhl studying brain activity of an infant using magnetoencephalography. Left: Dr. Kuhl and MEG operator Myles Reilly set up a subject in the MEG machine; middle: Dr. Kuhl with infant subject; and right: Dr. Kuhl and Myles analyzing brain activity of the infant subject.
What advice would you give to a young ASA member about getting involved in professional groups, such as ASA, and the role these professional organizations may have on their lives?
I would tell a young person that, other than the quality of their science, a focus on joining and volunteering in an organization like ASA in which people challenge and stimulate you is the most important way to advance your career.
As a postdoc at ASA, I accepted a challenge from the Haskins group (Al Liberman and Michael Studdert-Kennedy) who argued that speech perception couldn’t occur without the ability to produce it. When babies demonstrated the ability to perceive the sounds of human speech, the Haskins theorists argued that it was because they are innately endowed with special machinery, a language acquisition device that is unique to humans. It occurred to me that I could run some simple speech experiments with an animal and either prove or disprove their point. Long story short, I showed that it doesn’t have to be a special language acquisition device that lets babies learn this way. This changed views substantially and it was my first real independent finding, something that made a difference to theory. I don’t think we would even come up with these questions if we weren’t in an arena where these debates go on. Engineering, psychoacoustics, and psychology all took different positions and then generated what would be a critical experiment to prove or disprove it. Without that kind of interaction at a place like the ASA conferences, not much changes.
Select Publications of Patricia Kuhl:
Doupe, A., qnd Kuhl, P. (1999). Birdsong and speech: Common themes and mechanisms. Annual Review of Neuroscience 22, 567–631. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.neuro.22.1.567.
Ferjan Ramirez, N., Rosebery Lytle, S., and Kuhl, P. (2020). Parent coaching increases conversational turns and advances infant language development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 117, 3484-3491. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1921653117.
Ferjan Ramírez, N., and Kuhl, P. (2017). Bilingual baby: Foreign language intervention in Madrid’s Infant Education Centers. Mind, Brain, and Education 11, 133–143. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12144.
Kuhl, P., Ramírez, R., Bosseler, A., Lin, J., and Imada, T. (2014). Infants’ brain responses to speech suggest Analysis by Synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, 11238–11245.https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410963111.
Kuhl, P. (2010). Brain mechanisms in early language acquisition. Neuron 67(5), 713–727. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.038.
Kuhl, P. K. (2007). Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain? Developmental Science 10(1), 110–120. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00572.x.
Kuhl, P., Tsao, F., and Liu, H. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100(15), 9096–9101. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1532872100.
Kuhl, P., Andruski, J., Chistovich, I., Chistovich, L., et al. (1997). Cross-language analysis of phonetic units in language addressed to infants. Science 277(5326), 684–686. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.277.5326.684.
Kuhl, P., and Meltzoff, A. (1996). Infant vocalizations in response to speech: Vocal imitation and developmental change. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 100, 2425–2438. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.417951.
Kuhl, P., Williams, K., Lacerda, F., Stevens, K., et al. (1992). Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age. Science 255, 606–608. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1736364.
Kuhl, P., and Meltzoff, A. (1982). The bimodal perception of speech in infancy. Science 218, 1138–1141. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.7146899.
Sundara M., Ward N., Conboy B., and Kuhl P. (2020). Exposure to a second language in infancy alters speech production. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1366728919000853.
Zhao, T., and Kuhl, P. (2016). Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 113(19), 5212–5217. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1603984113.
Zhao, T., and Kuhl, P. (2015). Higher-level linguistic categories dominate over lower-level acoustics in lexical tone processing. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 138, 133–137. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.4927632.
Zhao, T., and Kuhl, P. (2020). How early music training changes the brain. Acoustics Today 16(3), 61-69. https://doi.org/10/1121/AT.2020.16.3.61.
 Dr. Kuhl has served on the Executive Council (1982–1986), has been a member of the Speech Communication Technical Committee (1989–1992), Publication Policy Committee (2004–2005), Investment Committee (2004–2006) and member and chair of the Medals and Awards Committee (1993–1995). She co-chaired the Joint International Meeting of the ASA and ICA in 1998 and the 75th Anniversary Celebration in 2004.