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“”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.
Ben Barres (1954–2017) was an American neurobiologist and transgender man who was famous for his research in glial cells, and advocating for gender equality in science. Being a transgender man who didn't transition until his forties, Barres had a lot of experience being perceived as a woman in his field and the sort of stereotypes and prejudice that women typically face in science. Barres was not only passionate about science and gender equality but also fought against the idea that scientists should treat their post-doctoral students as competition. Barres died of pancreatic cancer in 2017. He was a really cool dude.
If anyone challenges the idea that one can be openly transgender and a scientist, Barres was proof that you absolutely can.
Through most of his life, Barres presented as female before he transitioned in his forties. As an undergraduate, prior to coming out and transitioning, Barres was frequently accused of cheating on difficult math problems and having his "boyfriend" solve the problems. Barres graduated with a medical degree from Dartmouth college, did a neurology residency at Weill Cornell Medicine, then left medicine to pursue a doctorate at Harvard Medical School. Barres was primarily intrigued by the role glial cells played in brain development and disease and spent pretty much most of his life studying glial cells.
Barres struggled with gender dysphoria for most of his life but didn’t come out and transition until well into his career. Barres started his own laboratory in 1993 at Stanford and didn't transition as male until 1997.
Barres' lab was almost exclusively focused on the function of glial cells and found that glial cells play an important role in forming synaptic connections, brain plasticity, and growth. In his lab, it was discovered that glial cells play an important role in preventing damage to the central nervous system after injury, but that also inadvertently prevents neurons from regenerating their own axons. Turns out cells in the peripheral nervous system quickly clear off degenerating myelin from the axon after axotomy (the severing of an axon), while cells in the central nervous system do not; instead leaving the degenerative myelin on the cell while also triggering inhibitory cues for decades after damage. The reason for this is complex and involves many different biochemical reactions between the immune system, neurons and glial cells, and many of these discoveries were made by students working in Barres' lab. The result of both Barres and his students research led to glial cells being taken more seriously in neurobiology as a whole, whereas before that, glial cells were considered "boring" and unimportant. Barres and his many students working in his lab proved that glial cells were integral to sustaining the overall structure of the brain and sustaining the synaptic connections between neurons.
After transitioning, Barres overheard a comment about how he did better seminars than his sister when the sister in reference was actually Barres himself pre-transition. This experience in addition to his other experiences pre-transition made Barres a very vocal advocate for women's rights in science and universities, even having a bit of a reputation for being combative with other scientists. In 2006 Barres published an article in Nature titled, "Does Gender Matter?", arguing against the idea that the lack of women in science was due to inherent inability. This was in response to the comment made by the then-president of Harvard Larry Summers who argued that the reason why women weren't well-represented in science was due to natural differences in gender. Barres pointed out that a lot of the claims that marginalized groups are just naturally inferior to more privileged groups have been historically based on junk science and bigotry. Barres argued that there is very little evidence to suggest that men and women differ in math ability, and there is evidence to suggest that women and other minorities are held to a much higher standard compared to white men.
- Ben Barres (1954–2017): Neurobiologist who advocated for gender equality in science by Andrew D. Huberman (02 January 2018; Correction 11 January 20180 Nature
- Barres, B. (2018). The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. The MIT Press.
- Ben Barres: neuroscience pioneer, gender champion: Marc Freeman lauds the transgender neurobiologist's posthumously published memoir. by Marc Freeman (22 October 2018) Nature.
- Neuroscientist Ben Barres, who identified crucial role of glial cells, dies at 63 by Bruce Goldman Stanford Medicine News Center (archived from May 23, 2019).
- https://www.nature.com/articles/442133a Does gender matter?] by Ben A. Barres (2006) Nature 442:133–136.