A Fierce Force that Reshaped Science
Writer: Ilina Moitra
Editor: Eleanor Mackle
Artist: Lucie Gourmet
Ben Barres was a prominent neuroscientist whose work focused on glial cells. He played a key role both in establishing the importance of glial cells in the healthy brain, and also in exploring how they interact in neurodegeneration. As an openly queer scientist, Barres was a fervent advocate for equity in science and since his passing in 2017, has lived on as a beacon of hope for the scientific community. His existence has played a significant role in my life, so this article is my expression of veneration of his legacy.
In his memoir, Barres expressed that he felt like an estranged “freak” for a large part of his life. He did not fit the roles expected of him as a young child and teenager, but was largely unbothered by that. Driven by boredom and a desire to learn, he curated his own curriculum by attending classes at Andover Academy, Rutgers University and Columbia University during his school years, to supplement his formal education, which he didn’t find challenging enough. Barres completed his undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he developed an interest in the workings of the brain, whilst also furthering his interest in computer science.
After MIT, Barres went on to fulfil his training in medicine at Dartmouth Medical College, including a residency in neurology at Cornell, where his experiences sparked an interest in neurodegeneration. Eventually, he started a highly successful laboratory at Stanford University, focusing on research into glial cells. Glia are the non-neuronal cells of the brain and spinal cord that ensure neurones of the brain can function optimally by performing an array of supportive functions.
During his time at Stanford University, Barres produced over 200 publications. He also started his own company called Annexon Biosciences Inc., which aimed to find pharmacological cures to neurodegenerative diseases. Barres was the recipient of several awards and honours; most recently, in 2016 he was awarded the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience. He attributed his success to “intense and uncontrollable passion” and “grit”. As a widely celebrated scientist, there are several feature articles written about him; not only to mark his scientific achievements but also his activism and other contributions to the field.
Assigned female at birth, Barres came across the word ‘transgender’ shortly after securing tenure, at the age of 43, and felt an immediate, undeniable connection with the term. The signs had been clear since childhood, but he had dismissed them with a deep sense of shame. Barres stated that he could not continue to identify the way he had previously, once he realised that he was indeed a transgender man. Despite the potential implications of this being career-ending, he felt that the only other other option would be to die by suicide, as he was unable to carry on living an inauthentic life. Thus began the transition process, making Barres the first openly transgender scientist in the National Academy of Sciences, as of 2013. He also identified as asexual in some capacity.
Barres was a crusader for the inclusion and representation of women in STEM. Having experienced discrimination due to his perceived gender as a women, Barres frequently spoke about rampant sexism in the scientific community and felt that after his biological transition, those unaware of his transgender status treated him more respectfully than they had when he presented as a woman. Barres was an exceptionally supportive mentor and often sponsored young students’ educations, to encourage their interest in science. He emphasised the importance and responsibility of mentors in science, and believed that the role went beyond the expanses of academia and pedagogy.
Barres passed away in 2017, after living with pancreatic cancer for about two years. He used these years to document several aspects of his work and life, in the form of a short book entitled The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. Barres lives on as a strong presence within the scientific community, continuing to inspire young scientists. As a fierce pursuer of equal opportunity, he wrote a message shortly before passing away, concluding with, “I believe that most or all of this pain is preventable in a future world in which people are less ignorant, more supportive, and more understanding”. That is a hope we can all share, align with, and work toward in these uncertain and challenging times.