Lifelong Learning

BBC Brainwaves – Q&A with Dr Kirsty Adamson

COL sat down with Short Courses Course Organiser Kirsty Adamson to talk about the importance of menstrual health

At the end of last year, our Science and Nature Course Organiser, Dr Kirsty Adamson, gathered a group of staff and students from the Centre of Open Learning to join the team from BBC Radio Scotland Brainwaves as they interviewed Prof Critchley from MRC Centre for Reproductive Health about the importance of discussing issues around menstrual health. Presenter and senior producer, Pennie Latin, lead the discussion about why the subject of menstruating is often considered a taboo topic in our society.  The episode is due to air this Wednesday 5 February at 1:30pm and again on Sunday 9 February at 6am via this link.

Ahead of the broadcast, we thought we'd catch up with Kirsty for more details about the discussion.

Prof Critchley BBC Brainwaves


1. How did the collaboration with Prof Hilary Critchley of MRC Centre for Reproductive Health and Brainwaves come about?

​BBC Brainwaves is a radio programme that explores many interesting issues and questions in science. Often, researchers from the University of Edinburgh are interviewed and as I was listening to the programme one day, I began to wonder if there might be a way to link the science courses that we offer at the Centre for Open Learning (COL) to the one-off topics explored during an episode of Brainwaves. I passionately believe that the science courses that we offer at COL should offer some deeper learning opportunities that underpin the ideas explored during popular programmes or one-off events.

With this in mind, I got in touch with Pennie Latin, the presenter and senior producer on BBC Brainwaves, who was brilliantly responsive to the idea. When she and her team were exploring the idea of interviewing Prof Hilary Critchley about her work on Menstrual Health, they thought that it would be nice to invite a small but diverse audience to join in the discussion. Thanks to our earlier conversations, the Brainwaves team knew that we have a diverse range of students of different ages and from different cultural backgrounds.

Together, Pennie and I agreed that this episode would form the first step in building a collaboration between the Centre for Open Learning and BBC Brainwaves. The University of Edinburgh is an incredible hotbed of scientific research and I am delighted that COL can play a part in showcasing that research and I am delighted that COL can play a part in showcasing that research to a wider audience.


2. What was the aim of the programme?

The aim of the radio programme was to highlight the research by Prof Critchley and her team on the heavy menstrual bleeding that some individuals experience as part of their monthly cycle. Hilary is passionate about breaking down the taboos surrounding the topic as it is only when we talk about our experiences of bleeding that we can gain an idea of what is 'normal' and what would be considered extreme. One of the main themes was the importance of ensuring that ALL members of society are aware of the nature of menstruation. Individuals suffering heavy bleeding need support and regardless of gender or age, there is a role for all of us to play in supporting each other.


3. Who participated in the recording? 

 A selection of our Access programme students and teaching staff were in attendance. Our aim was to create a sense of intimacy during the discussion, so we thought very carefully about who to invite along. When thinking about who to invite to take part in the radio recording, my office mate, Rachael King, made the brilliant suggestion of inviting along Martha Reilley, Women's Officer from the Student's Association who is also the co-founder of the charity, Sanitree. They work with vulnerable communities to make and sell reusable sanitary pads and I agreed that Martha and her colleague, Amy would be very well placed to take part in a discussion about breaking down the taboos surrounding menstrual health.


4. Can you tell us a little bit about Prof Critchley's research that was discussed?

Hilary talked about her research into understanding the biology of the lining of the womb (the endometrium). I was amazed to hear that we actually don't really know why people have periods and why problems with menstrual bleeding occur. Hilary hopes that her research will benefit both those who suffer from heavy menstrual bleeding, but also those who have delayed having children and want to preserve their womb.


5. Were there any other topics that were covered?

 Pennie asked Prof Critchley a number of interview-style questions and at times, the panel gathered by COL were invited to join in. There was a palpable sense within the room of relief at being able to talk openly about periods and it became more and more apparent to those gathered that menstruation is such a huge part of the lives of many people, and yet it's something that we rarely talk about. Hilary mentioned that as many as one in 10 people who menstruate experience very heavy bleeding to the point that it impacts their quality of life. Many people who experience heavy bleeding may be suffering in silence, feeling unable to speak about their experiences to their friends, their employer or even their close family. This is one of the main reasons that we need to break the taboo surrounding the topic- and what better way to do that than by hosting an Open Lecture linked to a radio programme!


6. How did it go? Were you pleased with the outcome?

I'll let you know once the broadcast has gone live! Joking aside, I was delighted that many barriers were broken down during our discussion. The panel members were riveted, the discussion went on way past the scheduled time and it was a pleasure to watch Pennie Latin expertly and sensitively guide us through such a delicate topic. It's a real credit to both Hilary and Pennie that together they established such a welcoming atmosphere that allowed us all to open up about our own experiences. There was no pressure on anyone to talk and some people chose to simply listen to the discussion.

7. Was there anything that surprised you about the session?

Yes, I was surprised yet also touched how open everyone was, particularly as none of us had really met each other until moments before the recording began.  Some of our panel members shared some deeply personal stories and I'm really grateful to them for opening up which then in turn allowed others to speak out. By broadcasting the discussion and following it up with an Open Lecture, I'm hoping that this has a snowball-effect. As Hilary so eloquently  pointed out, heavy menstrual bleeding can have such a large impact on an individual's quality of life. With such high numbers experiencing the condition, we really must make people more aware, so that we can take steps to ensure that those who menstruate are properly supported in both their private and public lives.


8. What for you was the most eye-opening point to come out of the discussion?

 Gosh, where to start! I think there's so much to take away from the experience, but if I had to choose just one thing, it's really that I hadn't previously appreciated the huge numbers of individuals suffering from heavy menstrual bleeding. As an educator and an employer, it's definitely something that I need to be aware of. Overall, we need to ensure that we are creating studying and working environments that can cater for the needs of all individuals, including those who suffer from heavy periods.


Following the Brainwaves recording, we felt there was still so much more to learn and to talk about regarding menstrual health, so we've set up a FREE Open Lecture to continue the conversation. Prof Critchley will be delving much deeper into her research and the last 30 minutes will be dedicated to audience participation and questions. The Open Lecture is due to take place on Wednesday 19 February from 6.30-8pm here at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Open Learning and everyone is welcome.


Register for the FREE event here