The Sky Is the Limit? Not for Dr. Rosemary Orr

By Piotr Dudek

 Asked about the beginning of her academic career, Dr. Rosemary Orr began by saying “That is a very cool story!” After having interviewed Dr. Orr, I completely agree.

I originally applied to study engineering at the Trinity College in Dublin, which, at the time, needed as many points as medicine. I got in and all the signs were that I was perfectly suited for that degree” – said Dr. Orr. “However, I failed gloriously at every subject except Computer Science”. After that failure (maybe it should be called ‘fate’?) Dr. Orr achieved her bachelor in History and German. Afterwards, the UCU Linguistics teacher worked as a chef for ten years. “I started working in a restaurant, clearing tables. It was never my intention to do so, but I ended up training as a chef. I had my own catering business and restaurant kitchen. I LOVED it. Absolutely.”

 After that time Dr. Orr decided to go back to college to study linguistics, which as she says, she “discovered through the German department, studying Proto-Indo-Hittite laryngeal fricatives, via old English”. After completing a Masters degree in Linguistics, her very first project was speech synthesis/speech recognition project at the European Space Agency. “Let’s say you are a cosmonaut and you have to carry out a biochemistry experiment in zero gravity. Whilst doing it, you have to read the step-by-step instructions displayed on a computer screen”, explains Dr. Orr. “The computer would say the consecutive steps to the cosmonaut aloud, who would give commands to the computer to, for example, repeat the step, move to the next step, save data, etc. The team she worked on successfully put together a speech dialogue system and it was launched into space for use in the MIR space station. However, when the payload arrived at the space station, the docking compartment caught fire and the cosmonauts who had trained to use it could not retrieve the system. Dr. Orr recalls in retrospective amusement “we were so annoyed!”

In 1998, Dr. Orr got an invitation to work with some of the best researchers in voice source analysis at the time in Nijmegen. There she completed her PhD in acoustic speech analysis, focusing on the voice source and investigating whether it is possible to objectively measure robustness in prospective teachers’ voices.

Whilst still working on her research in Nijmegen, Dr. Orr started working at UCU in 2001. After she completed her PhD, as well as being a tutor and teacher of linguistics, she traveled to the UK for two days a week to work on a project for IBM, producing an automated grapheme-to-phoneme pronunciation dictionary for Dutch.

From 2006 to 2008 she worked on research for the European Telecommunication Standard Institute (ETSI), focused on establishing electronic devices’ menu vocabulary in all European languages. It was intended to be used in all kinds of smartphones, smart houses etc. and currently forms the European standard used by European electronic device manufacturers like Ericsson, Philips and Nokia. “The ETSI project involved many of our UCU students. They were selected to represent all languages in the EEA, and their basic task was to Skype their grannies, aunties, parents and friends, in order to ask what kind of word they would use to describe a specific function of a phone. It was a fun project that bonded a big group of our students, and provided a lot of money for research jobs on campus.”

A lot of my work has involved our students. In 2008, I went to the International Computer Science Institute in Berkley to work on language recognition, to expand research that we carried out at UCU with one of our alumni, Michaël de Boer. He worked with us on language recognition for five languages and, in Berkeley, we expanded his work to 14 languages. The paper that we wrote with him resulted in a publication or two, as well as a keynote speech at the Odyssey Speaker and Language Recognition workshop in South Africa that year.” adds dr. Orr.

There is also a very interesting upcoming plan for the “Accent project” research, aiming at discovering how the people in our environment influence our accent. “We will hopefully get a couple of students involved to look at the social network of several people. The project presents some interesting challenges. We need to respect people’s privacy, but at the same time we will be looking at names of the people mentioned in the questionnaires to be able to match them to recordings, and to invite them to make recordings” clarifies Dr. Orr.

Asked about a golden tip for our thesis research, Dr. Orr was reminded of the words of one of our students “‘I do not have to keep doing this until it is perfect. These are the steps. Some things must be done very well – but above all, they need to be done. If in the end nothing is significant, then that is how it is.’ Do not bang your head against a wall – the results are what they are!”

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