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Ben Barres, 63, groundbreaking neuroscientist and advocate for women in science

Jakub Mosur For the Boston Globe/file 2006

Dr. Barres conducted pioneering research at Stanford University into the roles played by the brain’s glial cells.

By Globe Staff 

As a first-year student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ben Barres stayed up late one night solving a difficult, final problem on a take-home exam. He was Barbara Barres then — still some two decades away from transitioning to being male, and he had not yet discovered his calling as a groundbreaking neuroscientist.

The next day in class, the professor handed back the tests and announced that no one had solved the last question. When Dr. Barres confronted the professor when the class ended, “He looked at me with disdain and said, ‘Your boyfriend probably solved it for you.’ He just couldn’t imagine, in 1973, that a woman could solve a problem that hundreds of men couldn’t solve.”

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In an interview with The Scientist magazine earlier this year, Dr. Barres said he “was kind of indignant” at being accused of cheating, “but it really didn’t occur to me until years later that it was sexism. I didn’t really think about those things then. I saw myself as a guy and felt that I was a guy inside, even though I was a woman. So I was a bit oblivious to stuff like that.”

Dr. Barres, who was 63 when he died in California Wednesday, 20 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, conducted pioneering research at Stanford University into the roles played by the brain’s glial cells. In the past 11 years, he also became a unique and important advocate for women in science. He drew international attention in 2006, when he published an essay criticizing comments Lawrence Summers had made, while president of Harvard University, that women don’t have the same “innate ability” as men in certain fields.

“I think because I am transgendered some people view anything I say with suspicion,” Dr. Barres told The New York Times in 2006. “I am very different from the average person. But I have experienced life both as a woman and as a man. I have some experience of how both sexes are treated.”

After finishing a bachelor’s degree at MIT, Dr. Barres graduated from Dartmouth Medical School and received a doctorate in neurobiology from Harvard University. Joining the Stanford faculty in 1993, Dr. Barres went on to chair the neurobiology department at the School of Medicine, and he created and directed the master’s of science in medicine degree program for doctoral students.

“Ben was a remarkable person,” Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford’s president, said in a statement. “He will be remembered as a brilliant scientist who transformed our understanding of glial cells and as a tireless advocate who promoted equity and diversity at every turn.”

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As a neurology resident after medical school, Dr. Barres was troubled by how essentially powerless physicians were when treating complex degenerative brain diseases. During a neuropathology rotation, Dr. Barres took note of a phenomenon in which the brain’s glial cells change shape in the area that is damaged because of an injury or a chronic illness.

Glial cells — known collectively as glia — aren’t nerve cells but make up about 90 percent of the brain’s cells. Earlier researchers thought of them as “mere passive participants in maintaining neural function,” Thomas Clandinin, who succeeded Dr. Barres as department chair at Stanford, said in a statement.

“Ben pioneered the idea that glia play a central role in sculpting the wiring diagram of our brain and are integral for maintaining circuit function throughout our lives,” Clandinin said.

Along with discoveries that Stanford said “revolutionized the field of neuroscience,” Dr. Barres was groundbreaking in the way he treated the postdoctoral fellows he supervised. He believed post-docs should be allowed to take their research and projects with them when they leave to start their own labs.

“He didn’t have these normal territorial issues all of us have,” Andrew Huberman, an associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford who had been a postdoctoral advisee of Dr. Barres, said in a statement. “He always gave more than he took. If there ever was an example of a purpose-driven life, it’s Ben.”

Born Barbara Barres, Dr. Barres grew up in West Orange, N.J., one of four children whose parents were a salesman and a homemaker. “When I was about 6 years old, I remember I decided to be a scientist and my fraternal twin sister decided to be a nurse, and I went on to become a scientist and she became a nurse,” Dr. Barres told The Scientist. “There were no nurses or scientists in our family, so who knows where we got this idea. I was a young geek; I was interested in science, period.”

By adolescence, Dr. Barres had decided to attend MIT, despite being discouraged to do so by a school guidance counselor. From early childhood, Dr. Barres said, “I had been confused about my gender. . . . I knew there was something different about me and I was confused and ashamed about what it was. I never discussed it with anyone until I decided to change sex.”

That didn’t happen until much later. He graduated in 1976 from MIT, in 1979 from Dartmouth Medical School, and in 1990 from Harvard with his doctorate. At 41, two years after starting work at Stanford, Dr. Barres was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I said to the doctor, ‘While you’re taking off the right breast, please take the left one, too,’ ” he told Discover magazine earlier this year. Dr. Barres suspected there might be a genetic susceptibility, because his mother was in her 40s when she died of breast cancer. The surgery also was a step toward becoming who he knew he was.

After being granted tenure in 1997, Dr. Barres began taking hormones and e-mailed friends and colleagues to say he was now Ben. Dr. Barres worried the announcement might adversely affect his career — needlessly, it turned out, as he was subsequently promoted to full professor and department chair. Within scientific circles, however, one significant change was apparent after he transitioned from female to male.

“By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he wrote in “Does Gender Matter?” — his 2006 Nature magazine essay criticizing Summers’ comments. “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Stanford’s announcement did not provide information about his survivors or plans for a memorial service.

“You know, I think science is beautiful,” Dr. Barres said in a video interview, recorded in July, that Stanford posted as part of its announcement. “I mean, what is more beautiful than discovering something that has never been known before? That is just sort of awe inspiring.”

He also talked about his the impending finality of his illness. “I’m not worried, really, about dying,” he said. “I mean, everybody’s going to die at some point. I’m old. I’ve had a great life.”

Dr. Barres added, “To me the thing that’s the hardest part is that this amazing time I’ve been having in science for my whole life just suddenly comes to an end. . . . I was just curious about certain things and it just, you know, comes to a halt. And that’s frustrating.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.