Posthumous autobiography of Ben Barres Med'79 inspires scientific, transgender communities

by Savannah Eller | 11/12/18 3:00am

The legacy of celebrated neurobiologist and transgender role model Ben Barres Med’79 is living on in a posthumously-published autobiography, introducing many to the pioneering scientist who died of cancer late last year.

Barres was known for his groundbreaking research into the central nervous system and his tireless advocacy for women and minorities entering science. In his autobiography, published in October by the MIT Press, the scientist recounted his struggles first as a woman pursuing a career in STEM and then during his gender transition in the 1990s.

Born in West Orange, New Jersey, Barres discovered a passion for science and mathematics early on. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1970s, experiencing discrimination firsthand as a woman with an unusual aptitude for science.

“People were really worried about letting women in [to MIT],” said Nancy Hopkins, biology professor emerita at MIT, who wrote the forward for Barres’ autobiography. “They were afraid of lowering standards, that women weren’t capable of the really high-level mathematics and engineering accomplishments.”

After receiving a medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School, since renamed the Geisel School of Medicine, in 1979, Barres went on to conduct groundbreaking graduate and postdoctoral research on glia, the support cells that surround nerves in the central nervous system. Barres published a prolific body of work on the previously discounted cells.

“He really laid the foundation for our understanding of the field,” said fellow glia researcher and Oregon Health and Science University professor Marc Freeman, who wrote an obituary for Barres in Nature International Journal of Science.

According to Freeman, Barres became interested in glia cells as a student at Dartmouth Medical School. He continued his research into the cells for the rest of his career, despite a general lack of interest from the scientific community in the field at the beginning. Early on, Barres set out to vindicate glia cells as worthy of research and consideration.

“He was told more than once along the way that he was wasting his time, and these cells weren’t interesting, but he didn’t believe that,” Freeman said.

While running a lab at Stanford University, Barres discovered that a type of glia cells called astrocytes played a part in regulating the creation of synapses between neurons. This discovery changed how the neurobiology community thought of glia, accepting them as integral to the processes of the mammalian central nervous system, according to Freeman.

“That suddenly made them much more interesting to everybody,” he said.

Barres was just as influential as an advocate as he was as a cutting-edge researcher. Having navigated the scientific community as a woman and then as a transgender man, he was sensitive to unconscious bias against female scientists, Hopkins said.

His first high-profile defense of female scientists was an article in Nature titled “Does Gender Matter?” in which he made a compelling neurobiological case against several contemporary claims of women’s inherent inferiority.

“The way he wrote was punchy, powerful, funny and amazing,” said Hopkins, praising the article as a seminal work on female representation in science.

Barres continued to write timely pieces on discrimination and representation throughout the later years of his career. Many of his articles focused on mentorship and the challenges that postdoctoral students face as they try to advance in STEM fields.

“He was able to be an advocate without alienating or antagonizing people, and that was a real gift,” said Leslie Henderson, physiology and neurobiology professor and dean of faculty affairs at Geisel.

Barres advocated in quieter ways as well, becoming an enthusiastic mentor for the young scientists working in his lab at Stanford and for those he met across the country.

Freeman said he remembers first meeting Barres at a conference. Bonded by a shared interest in glial cells, the pair immediately became friends. Barres offered to write Freeman a recommendation letter and invited him to speak at conferences.

“I’m probably one of a hundred or a couple hundred young scientists he did this for,” he said.

Hopkins said she predicts Barres will be known in the future for both his scientific contributions and his uniquely effective advocacy fueled by his own experiences of discrimination.

“He was the most extraordinary person in science I think I’ve ever met,” she said.