Professor Jim Cole - Research & Innovation - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Distinguished Professor Mike Steel
Professor Jennifer Hay

UC awards 2015 Research Medal

A University of Canterbury (UC) academic who specialises in the analysis of words and sounds has been awarded the University’s 2015 Research Medal.

This year’s recipient is Professor Jennifer Hay (Language, Social and Political Sciences) who is Director of the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, based at UC. 

The Research Medal is awarded annually by UC for excellence in research or in recognition of research of outstanding merit produced over a limited time frame. It is the University’s highest recognition of an outstanding contribution to research.

Professor Hay says she is thrilled and honoured by the recognition.

“I enjoy interacting with and learning from all of the incredibly smart, generous and fun people I work with – doctoral students, postdocs and collaborators from around the world,” she says.

“I also enjoy the thrill of new data and the fun of trying to uncover the patterns and secrets it contains.” 

Hay is currently working on a diverse range of projects which all aim to answer questions about the nature of our knowledge about words.

“What we want to know is - what is it that we know about words? How does our knowledge of words shape how we hear and produce speech?

“We’re using a wide range of approaches to answer these questions, including analysing how sound change spreads across words in New Zealand English. We are running experiments on speech production and conducting large scale online experiments about words and learning words.”

Hay says one of the studies that she’s best known for involved the hearing of vowels in rooms full of soft toys, and how the character of the toys affected vowel perception. This research is part of a study into how environmental factors affect how we hear speech. 

“We found that New Zealanders hear vowels differently if the room they are sitting in contains toy kangaroos and koalas, than if it contains toy kiwis,” she says.

“People like these results because they are so unexpected and crazy. Yet it’s illustrative of an important line of research we have, showing that people automatically use all kinds of environmental information to process speech.”

Hay is a current Rutherford Discovery Fellow and is running the “Wordovators” project together with Janet Pierrehumbert of the University of Oxford. The project is funded by a US$2.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The Wordovators project is a major international study into how children and adults make new words.

UC Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Steve Weaver says Professor Hay is an internationally recognised expert in her field and the awarding of the Research Medal acknowledges her place as a world-class researcher.

“Professor Hay is an outstanding academic and we are proud to award the Research Medal to her this year,” he says.

Jennifer Hay research profile