The Offspring and Equal Opportunities Tribute to Ben Barres

By Constanze Depp, Maria Eichel & Renée Hartig

February 27, 2018

On December 27th, famous neurobiologist, Stanford professor and Harry Potter Fan, Ben Barres passed away at the age of 63 after a short and severe illness. Barres, one of the strongest and most prominent equal opportunity advocates in life sciences, held a fairly unique perspective on this issue due to transitioning from female to male during his scientific career.

Thus, for the Offspring’s LGBTQ+ awareness month, we would like to pay tribute to this exceptional scientist by giving an overview of his scientific career, his contributions to the Equal Opportunities (EO) movement, and his pleading for proper mentoring in science. By sharing our own stories about how we first learned about Barres, we hope to highlight the encouraging fact that it is truly first about his research, and only then about his personal life choices.


Prologue: How I met Harry Potter

Chapter 1: Learning in Hogwarts - Scientific Career

Chapter 2: A Wizard amongst Muggles – Being Transgender

Chapter 3: Teaching Dumbledor’s Army – Mentoring

Chapter 4: Black Magic Defeated? - Open Questions

Epilogue:  In the Pensieve - Remembering Barres

Prologue: How I met Harry Potter

“During my Bachelor studies, my neurodevelopment professor told me to read up on a paper of this excellent neuroscience professor at Stanford University, who back when that paper was published was named Barbara, not yet Ben Barres. It was the first - and only time - I had heard about an openly LGBTQ+ person at such a prestigious research institution. Being aware of “his story”, I enjoyed reading his papers even more later in my career – knowing he’s not only a brilliant scientist but also a role model for standing up in one’s beliefs against all challenges.” - Constanze Depp

“During my Master studies I already focused on glia-axonal interactions in the nervous system. If one works in this field of research you come across the name Ben Barres quite frequently. Often I used the RNASeq brain transcriptome database that was published by the lab of Ben Barres and I also enjoyed reading articles from his lab. It took a long time (until I actually finished my master thesis) that I heard of Ben Barres being transgender. I started digging out some interviews and articles about him and found his story really encouraging. If it was the fact that I did not know beforehand or if I was just curious that someone so famous in the field is transgender I cannot recall properly. I am still fascinated that he was so open about his emotions, fears and his active engagement to raise awareness which so far seemed rare in the scientific community. I admire not only his scientific way of thinking but also how he tried to discuss general topics within academia be it equal opportunities, gender awareness or how mentoring should be changed to thrive future generations of scientists.” - Maria Eichel

Chapter 1: Learning in Hogwarts - Scientific Career

Barres was born on September 13th, 1954 in West Orange, New Jersey with a female gender assignment. After school, the tomboy with a genuine enthusiasm for science went on to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree. Thrilled by his first encounter with neuroscience, he eventually decided to become a clinical scientist, changing his major from computer science to pre-medicine. Afterwards, Barres entered Dartmouth Medical School to obtain a medical degree in 1979. During his neurology residency at Weill Cornell University, he felt devastated by the lack of treatment options available for his patients; he traced this problem back to the neurobiology field being notoriously understudied at that time. Driven by the motivation to help better understand and treat neurological diseases by conducting basic research, Barres decided to obtain a formal PhD after completion of his neurology residence - a rather unconventional career step.

During the beginning of his doctorate in the lab of David Corey at Harvard Medical School, Barres worked as a PhD student during the week and as a neurologist at night and on the weekends in order to start paying off his student loans. Once his PhD supervisor David Corey offered him a proper postdoc position (after all he already held a medical doctor degree), he gratefully accepted this to focus on his research and quit medical practice. During his PhD Barres followed his interest in glial cells – the non-neuronal cells of the brain that have originally been described as the “glue” holding neurons in place.

During a neuropathology rotation, Barres had learned that glial cells reacted to several kinds of brain damage with a mysterious proliferative response called ‘gliosis’. From the groundbreaking work during his PhD, he characterized ion channels and neurotransmitter receptors in glial cells, indicating that these cells – similar to neurons - are able to communicate with each other. After earning his doctorate in 1990, Barres joined the lab of Martin Raff at University College London (UCL). Here, Barres developed a sequential immunopanning technique to isolate oligodendrocyte precursor cells from optic nerves – a method that would form the basis of several landmark discoveries in his own lab later on - and contributed significantly to understanding the oligodendrocyte precursor division and differentiation processes. After his very successful time at UCL, Barres moved to Stanford to establish his own lab as an assistant professor in 1993. Here, he switched his attention from oligodendrocytes to the other forms of glial cells in the brain – astrocytes (star-shaped cells) and microglia (the brain’s immune cells). Barres and his team revealed how both cell types contribute to the formation, pruning and function of synapses and how these processes can be disrupted by certain disease conditions. Nature recently published a paper from Barres’ lab describing the generation and behaviour of the neurotoxic A1 astrocyte subtype that is associated with a variety of neurodegenerative conditions. Since 2008 Barres was Chair of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University, and in 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Science - as the first openly transgender member.

Further Reading

Barres, B. A. (2008). The mystery and magic of glia: a perspective on their roles in health and disease. Neuron, 60(3), 430-440.

Allen, N. J., & Barres, B. A. (2009). Neuroscience: glia—more than just brain glue. Nature, 457(7230), 675.

Eroglu, C., & Barres, B. A. (2010). Regulation of synaptic connectivity by glia. Nature, 468(7321), 223

Chapter 2: A Wizard amongst Muggles – Being Transgender

Ben Barres was not only a brilliant scientist but also an advocate for equal opportunities and openly discussed his experiences being transgender. He began  his career as Barbara Barres, and underwent a sex change in 1997. Barres knows the difficulties and challenges women and LGBTQ+ individuals face. Admirably, he was never too shy to talk about being transgender in public, and with this hopefully paved the way for future discussions and awareness for LGBTQ+ individuals within academia.

In one of his guest lectures at Harvard and in several interviews, he states that, of course, he feared a lack of acceptance within the scientific community and how this would affect his career. Nevertheless, he underwent a mastectomy and treatment with high doses of testosterone while he was in his forties. Muscularity and baldness soon came, and he also exhibited an inability to cry when transforming into a male.
As a child he was always playing with trucks or model airplanes or dressed up as a football player or army man for Halloween. The confusion started in his teens when his normal female body transformation complicated things: growing breasts, shaving legs, dressing up and wearing make-up felt utterly wrong. Looking in the mirror was difficult for him back then, and pictures were not saved because he always felt uncomfortable. Sadly, throughout his early years he was ashamed to discuss his feelings with anyone. In 1997, he decided to undergo a sex change not because he wanted to achieve a male advantage but because of his lifelong gender identity confusion. After changing his sex Ben was far happier than ever, not ashamed anymore and overwhelmingly supported by his colleagues. In an interview, he says that life is much better now that he has pictures taken, is willing to date, and has gained a unique perspective on how women are treated in academia. The biggest difference he noticed was that people who did not know he was once a woman treated him differently, and with far more respect. Some even commented on his research being better compared to what his sister did in the past.

Men started telling him things that they would not have said if he was still Barbara; for example, how strongly they believe that gender stereotypes are true. Gaining these experiences, Barres openly discussed the importance of gender identity and for every individual to raise awareness and increase acceptance for those whom the innate sense of gender differs from the body’s anatomy. He tried to encourage every LGBTQ+ individual that is still closeted out of fear to open up. In that sense, he not only pursued his own identity but also spoke up for minorities and women in science.

Web of Stories: Life Stories of Remarkable people: Ben Barres

Some Reflections on the Dearth of Women in Science: A talk at Harvard University by Ben Barres

Chapter 3: Teaching Dumbledor’s Army – Mentoring

Ben Barres also put a lot of effort into mentoring by guiding young scientists on how to select a graduate advisor and how group leaders and lab heads should give young researchers the freedom for project porting. In two publications in Nature and Neuron he discusses these  important topics – and his clearly stated opinion on supervision surely raises some discussions.

However, it is uncommon nowadays for high-ranked scientists to openly discuss what might be going wrong and advise young researchers on how to find their way. Ben Barres did have an opinion and was keen enough to share his thoughts.

If you read one of the numerous tributes to him there are always quotes from people who worked in his lab about how a good supervisor he was. So, what are his statements that might be of interest for us as young researchers in regards finding a mentor?

One key message is being diverse and having an open mind. Young scientists should not look for the one researcher who works on a specific topic they think they are interested in. As scientists, our background is diverse and so should be our interests. Therefore, one should go out and try to find several topics, do various lab rotations and network to broaden horizons

But, what is a good mentor and how can one be identified? Barres mentions three criteria that sound logical, but are forgotten by majority of young researchers. First of all, scientific ability as well as mentoring ability are most important. Often, after finishing a study one is not equipped for deciding what is good research. Nevertheless, one can search for a “future” lab by noting which journals they publish in, and if the papers are well-written and cited. Also, one should never be too shy in asking for the CVs of potential mentors and inquire with graduate program advisors, faculty members as well as other lab members for their thoughts about the lab.

Time is also of essence, so a young group leader might also be an excellent choice because he or she just recently moved from bench to office (if even so) and has time to mentor because the labs are often quite small. With this, we come to the next part of being a good mentor (and clearly Ben Barres was one of those). Guidance is most important because as a graduate student you will need guidance at the beginning and you should also have enough space to develop your own thoughts and experiments. Accepting failure (and let’s be honest it happens) even if this means repeating the experiments several times (and maybe wasting time) is important for scientific development. Additionally, one should never forget that writing and reviewing papers and grants and analyzing data are things that have to be learned, in the best case scenario from your mentor. It is beneficial to have someone pushing you to be the better version of your scientific self by giving talks, attending conferences and presenting posters. Last, but not least, providing career guidance is an important task for supervisors. Not everyone can or will stay in science, but if most of the former lab members indeed leave science this might be a sign for unsuccessful mentoring.

Ben Barres stated himself that he is not the best example of a good work-life balance, but highlighted how important it is to maintain a balanced life. Actually, the third criteria for a good mentor is passion and enthusiasm. When the lab atmosphere feels more like a “summer camp” than a burden, you know you are on the right track and will manage to live a happy, balanced life and finish your PhD. In this article Barres also writes about the challenges of mentorship and proposes developing an M-Index to assess mentoring. This index would take into account good scientific practice, and anonymous feedback tracked by the university or institution to acknowledge good mentorship with awards and/or consideration for grants.

In his other article, Barres focuses on the topic of project porting, which is the idea that postdocs are allowed to take their projects with them when they leave to start their own labs. He argues in favor of this because he believes it is a sure way to drive innovation and discovery. Since this is a taboo topic Barres decided to openly communicate about research freedom at the end of his long academic career. In this article, he again highlights the importance of selecting a mentor/PI and openly asking about mentoring and research ownership policies before starting a position. The Neurobiology Department at Stanford University has a long history of allowing postdocs to port their projects. Over the past 25 years, this resulted in an astonishing 70% of postdocs running their own labs and/or are on the way to a professorship. Barres regarded the success of his trainees with high priority to honor the next generation of scientists.

Often scientists, lab heads, group leaders and mentors focus solely on academia and research because papers have to get published and science is competitive. However, communication about how we can make science a better place and nourish future scientists should be addressed by all high-ranking scientists. Mentors like Ben Barres motivate young researchers to perform at their best, help out those of us that are still looking for their path and encourage every researcher to think forward and drive science.

Further Reading

Barres, B. A. (2017). Stop blocking Postdoc`s path to success. Nature, 548, 517–519

Barres, B.A. (2013). How to Pick a Graduate Advisor. Neuron, Volume 80, Issue 2 , 275 - 279

Chapter 4: Black Magic Defeated? - Open Questions

Early glia-researcher Professor Klaus-Armin Nave, from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, values Barres’ work for its role in helping the glia research field  become a mainstream research field in neuroscience. Nave and Barres met for the first time as graduate students at a conference where Ben – back then Barbara - stood out due to her proactive character and active engagement in plenum discussions. In an interview, Nave pointed out that Barres was genuinely open about both his transition and, later on, his illness. He further emphasized that the glia community respectfully took notice of Barres’ transition without overrating it – with his research, not his gender in focus.  

Barres transitioned from female to male in 1997 being in his 40s and well settled in his career. The scientific community might have reacted differently to Barres’ transition if it had occurred earlier in his career path. Would an earlier transition have promoted his career due to earlier recognition as a male scientist, sparing him from the challenges he had faced as a women in obtaining a tenure track position? Or, would it have negatively impacted his career prospects due to discrimination against transgender people? While Barres’ career and story is indeed inspiring for other young LGBTQ+ scientists and has sensitized the scientific community to gender equality, sexism, mentoring issues and the topic of sexual identity, its long-lasting impact on the scientific community will hopefully emerge in the future - in the ever-rising number of female professors and group leaders recruited, in the evaluation of academic achievement, also in regards to mentoring skills and a tolerant, open lab atmosphere in which young scientists can flourish, both personally and scientifically.

Epilogue: In the Pensieve - Remembering Barres

In this last section, we have gathered a number of tributes, several landmark reviews as well as EO and mentoring related commentaries for the interested reader. The Offspring team had asked Barres for an interview in 2017, but he unfortunately had to decline the offer due to his ever-worsening health. In his last month, Barres practiced what he preached by keeping himself busy writing recommendation letters for his mentees, making sure their careers progress smoothly into the future. We feel sorrow we never met him in person. To put it in Harry Potter terms: We would have wished immortality for this inspiring scientist and exceptional EO spokesman to be granted by the philosopher’s stone.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne's Tribute from Stanford University's "Notes from the Quad" blog

Nicola J Allen and Richard Daneman's Tribute in the Journal of Cell Biology

Madolyn Bowman Rogers' Tribute from Alzforum

Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View