When the Period podcast went live in 2016, it took a social-scientific approach to menstruation, a.k.a. "periods."
Kathryn Clancy, a biological anthropologist and former writer for Scientific American, served as the podcast host and brought both feminist and scientific lenses to the show, which halted production as the pandemic worsened in May of last year.
I found this podcast while looking for a list of the best science podcasts and consistently found myself learning new things about a topic that, for more than half the population, is a normal part of existence for much of our adult lives.
"Period is my chance to spend some time with my favorite topic, hang out with people I admire and learn more about the social, political and biological aspects of menstruation," Clancy, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Yale University, said in the first episode's blurb.
Some have framed the podcast, which currently has 35 episodes spanning three seasons plus a number of encore episodes dubbed "breakthrough bleeds," as dry and scholarly but — if you are into that sort of thing — it filled gap after gap in research in an easy to follow way.
Clancy, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, interviews researchers, activists, parents and children about everything from prepubescent girls' anticipation about their first periods to the "Periods for Pence" political advocacy campaign.
In one episode, Clancy interviews Elizabeth Rowe, a biological anthropologist who studies menstruation, the uterus and genetics. Rowe said her frustration with the masculine bias in "hard sciences" is what drew her to studying periods.
"Menstruation is not something that is ever seen as serious ... It's not worthy of study unless we're talking about in the realm of women's health and gynecology and something is going wrong," Rowe says the second episode. "It's just gross, shouldn't be talked about, or it's shameful or it's just silly — it's not (seen as) something that serious science should be used to study."
Rowe said she enjoys the juxtaposition of studying something that is often thought of as being feminine with an approach that so many people think of as being classically masculine: the aforementioned "hard sciences."
Clancy echoed the sentiment and said that a male advisor's response to her suggestion of studying menstruation while she was an undergraduate helped her to know her research focus was on the right path.
"There was this whole aspect of my undergraduate project ... (when I said), 'Oh, I really want to study this stuff with periods, and I want to talk about menstrual blood.' (My advisor) wrinkled up his nose and kind of went, 'Eww,' and I was like, 'Okay, now I have an idea of what I want to be doing,'" Clancy said.
Each episode provides one or two in-depth interviews that never cease to amaze.
For example, Clancy dedicates one episode to the biological explanation of menstruation that reframes why primates — including humans, some bats, elephant shrews and some other mammals — have periods in the first place.
The expert that Clancy interviewed said the animals that do menstruate have an intimate connection between the mother and the fetus during pregnancy in terms of access to the mother's circulatory system.
"The fetus basically digs really deeply into mom's uterus to get at her blood supply. While it's great for a fetus to have that kind of access to mom's blood supply — they can get those nutrients and oxygen and so forth — it's actually potentially dangerous to moms," Rowe said. "A fetus that is a really aggressive digger, so to speak, could really harm mom's body."
Rowe added that the mother's body puts up a special tissue that acts as a shield against the fetus and enables the mother to protect her body against an aggressive fetus even before it's there.
"I call it sometimes 'pregaming' for pregnancy ... That shield is lost after pregnancy, and if pregnancy doesn't occur, that tissue is lost as part of menses," Rowe said.
Interviews like this top off the podcast and create an essential topic of conversation that is too often avoided.
Clancy also dedicated a number of episodes to the politicization of periods and, really, anything having to do with women's bodies.
In one, she interviewed Felisa Reynolds, an assistant professor of French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about their shared experience of trying to advocate for access to menstrual products and disposal receptacles. The two highlighted the inconsistency regarding bloodborne pathogens and biohazard cleanup in a workplace bathroom as opposed to a medical clinic.
The political episodes of the podcast dovetail with the menstruation equity movement that has been gaining steam across the country over the last few years. The New Mexico Legislature introduced two menstruation equity bills in 2019, but neither made it out of committee and the issue hasn't been addressed since.
Overall, Period is a wonky but accessible take on a phenomenon that can be mysterious, taboo and biologically complex.
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen