Remembering Ben Barres, the trailblazing trans neuroscientist and mentor, on his birthday
The legacy of the researcher, teacher, and gender equality advocate lives on
Today is the birthday of the legendary neuroscientist, Ben Barres, who passed away four years ago from pancreatic cancer. If he were alive today, he would have been 67 years old.
While many of his fellow neurobiologists focused their research efforts on nerve cells, he studied glia — the non-neuronal cells that were believed to only have a passive, supporting role in the nervous system. Barres and his lab changed this notion by discovering that glial cells are in fact necessary to make neurons functional and can even destroy them under disease conditions. Barres’s groundbreaking work put glia on the map of neuroscience and helped us understand the brain better.
Barres was born in West Orange, New Jersey, on September 13, 1954. From birth, he was assigned as female and named Barbara A. Barres, even though he later learned that he was intersex and transitioned. From a young age, Barres excelled in science and mathematics. He obtained a bachelor of science in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School. It was during his residency in neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine that he decided to resign from medicine and pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School instead. He then became a faculty member in neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine, where he stayed throughout the rest of his career.
As a professor, Barres was considered an incredible mentor who loved and supported his students, postdocs, and colleagues fiercely. He considered his colleagues his family and his trainees his children. According to Shane Liddelow, an assistant professor of neuroscience at New York University, who was a postdoc in Barres lab from 2012 until 2018, one of the things Barres would have been the proudest of if he were alive today is “how his trainees have continued to make exciting discoveries and seeing some of his earliest discoveries leading to exciting new disease therapies.”
But Barres was more than a trailblazing scientist and an exceptional mentor. He was a tireless advocate for diversity and inclusion in science. He believed that science could only move forward if everyone had a voice in it. “[Barres] was a constant and unreserved supporter of women, immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBTQI+, and any member of any underrepresented or poorly-treated group of scientists,” says Liddlelow, “his approach was to treat each other equally and lift up those who needed additional support.”
I felt that support even the first time I met Barres at the Society for Neuroscience meeting — the biggest annual neuroscience conference in the world with more than 30,000 attendees — in 2007. I was a 23-year-old first-year grad student and Barres was one of the keynote speakers at the event. Keynotes are highly regarded talks watched by almost all the attendees, where the speaker discusses their latest scientific achievements. Barres could have easily filled his precious time on the stage talking about his pioneering work on glia. Instead, he spent the majority of his speech talking about how hard it was to be a woman scientist and how the systemic biases and barriers hindered them from succeeding in their careers. “I can tell you all that from my personal experience,” he had said as he shared a photo of himself as a woman in a dress next to one after his transition.
As the first openly transgender scientist in the National Academy of Sciences, Barres — who transitioned from Barbara to Ben at the age of 43 — had plenty of first-hand experience with gender discrimination. And he talked openly about it. “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he wrote in his famous opinion piece in Nature titled “Does Gender Matter?” “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
Similarly, in a seminar he gave in 2016, Barres shared a slide that said: “The Many Barriers Talented Women Still Face,” which included women scientists’ struggles with lack of support for child care, prejudices against them being less competent, and sexual harassment. “Preach,” wrote Elizabeth Sypek, a postdoctoral scientist at John Hopkins University, who attended the seminar as a grad student at Stanford. By speaking about these barriers, he pushed the science community to know better and to do better.
The keynote talk he gave at the conference changed my view of the scientific community entirely. As a newbie to the science world, I had naively thought that I would be seen as an equal in my field but realized that I might face prejudice and sexism instead — which I did on many occasions. His speech not only made me aware of the challenges I might deal with in my career as a woman minority scientist but also encouraged me to support those around me and who came after me. I became one of the many he has supported through his advocacy for gender equality in science.
His impact, however, was beyond women scientists. By coming out as a trans man both in his personal and professional life, he paved the way for more trans, non-binary, and intersex people in science to choose to be out in their workplaces. “It gave me hope that I could become a scientist and not have to hide who I was forever, and still keep my job and friends and colleagues,” says Claudia Astorino, a PhD student in anthropology at the City University of New York, who received the Professional Development Fellowship for Trans, Intersex, and Non-Binary People in STEM (formerly known as the Ben Barres Fellowship) in 2021. “I was told from a young age that I could basically never disclose that I am intersex without huge, negative ramifications in my personal and social life. Reading Ben Barres’s [Nature] comment, I saw that maybe it would be possible after all, to someday be out and be myself and it could be okay.”
Speaking near the end of his life, Barres said: “I lived life on my terms: I wanted to switch genders, and I did. I wanted to be a scientist, and I was. I wanted to study glia, and I did that too. I stood up for what I believed in and I like to think I made an impact, or at least opened the door for the impact to occur. I have zero regrets and I’m ready to die. I’ve truly had a great life.”
And what a great gift his life has been and still is to all of us.