Netflix docuseries ‘Babies’ features MU Department of Anthropology professor

The series documents the growth and challenges that occur in the first year of a child’s life.
Libby Cowgill from the Department of Anthropology was featured on the new Netflix documentary "Babies.” | Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri.

The recently released Netflix documentary series “Babies” featured a familiar face to those in the MU Department of Anthropology — professor Libby Cowgill.

The series, which launched on the streaming service in February, recounts the first year of a child’s life.

Cowgill, an associate professor within the department, was featured in episode six for her research on how infants learn to walk. She and the other contributors to the show reenacted a collaborative project that she published. It detailed what happens to an infant’s leg bones when they are first used for walking and standing on two legs.

“Your bones are basically just like muscle and lay down more bone in response to exercise, so baby leg bones actually change shape in response to toddling around,” Cowgill said.

Cowgill said the director of her episode, Emma Webster, also sought to portray the real human lives of scientists that were used as sources. Cowgill was filmed exercising at CrossFit Fringe, where she coaches a couple of times a week. She also told stories about her grandfather who performed gymnastics on top of the Empire State Building.

“All in all, it was a really fun experience to be a part of,” Cowgill said.

Cowgill is particularly pleased by the success of the series. She said that it is currently the No. 7 watched show in the U.S. and No. 3 in the U.K.. The impact of this at MU is not lost on Lisa Sattenspiel, chair of the Department of Anthropology.

“Since the series is on Netflix and not buried in some series of documentary films accessible only to teachers and academics, it should be widely seen,” Sattenspiel said. “That might well draw some students to both MU in general and to our department in particular.”

Cowgill said she certainly hopes that will be the case. She sees one argument as particularly compelling for joining her field.

“I keep telling people come for the cute kids and stay for the science,” Cowgill said. “Babies are adorable, but the research behind human growth and development is incredible.”

This was not Cowgill’s first time in a documentary series. She was previously featured in the series “Neanderthal,” which aired on PBS and BBC. She credits this with her getting a role in “Babies.”

“I honestly think that once you're in one, people are interested in doing others with you,” Cowgill said.

Cowgill said she expected to get recognized by students for her role in the series, but that has yet to happen. She has, however, had a number of colleagues and members of the public reach out to her with positive feedback.

“I always get a lot of interesting [emails] from the public after something like this comes out, so my inbox is full of people who enjoyed the series or have questions about my work,” Cowgill said.

Cowgill has already shared clips from the series with her classes and hopes that some of them will watch more on their own. The series is currently available on Netflix and includes six roughly 50-minute episodes.

Edited by Alex Fulton | afulton@themaneater.com

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