Ben Barres was born and raised in New Jersey with the given name Barbara. Both of his parents never attended college and his three siblings were not interested in science. Although he had not had been immersed in STEM, Ben knew by his 5th birthday that he wanted to be a scientist. After graduating from high school, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and took a neuroscience course that sparked his interest in brain science. He went on to receive a medical degree from Dartmouth Medical school and completed his neurology residence at Cornell Hospitals in New York. With his passion for learning, he earned a neurobiology PhD at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Barres worked independently for three years at University College London where he made his first discoveries about oligodendrocytes. These are a type of large cell that holds and functions nerve cells known as glial cells in the central nervous system. Once he started his own lab at Stanford University, he and his team made endless important discoveries about the function of glial cells. Specifically, he found that glial cells have an impact on connector bridge formation and destruction; and these have essential functions in human health and disease. Specifically, Dr. Barres and his laboratory coworkers proposed that inflamed glial cells are partly a cause of neurodegenerative disorders.
Dr. Barres came out as transgender after being named chair of the neurobiology department at Stanford after debating whether taking his own life would be easier than expressing his true gender. Following his transition in his forties, he was the first openly transgender individual to be admitted into the National Academies of Science. After transitioning, he realized how differently women were treated compared to men in the STEM field. For instance, while in college, he completed an extremely difficult math problem that none of his colleges could compute. He was told by the professor, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” In general, Barres noted that after his transition he was interrupted less and treated with more respect by coworkers. He wrote about all his experiences in his book titled The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist shortly before his death in 2017.
All in all, Dr. Barres contributed incredible information towards the field while facing many societal hardships throughout his career due to being a member of the LGBTQ+ community and at one point identified as a woman. Outside of his love for science, Barres fought for the equality of women and LGBT individuals in society, especially in the STEM field. He used his position as a male professor and scientist to speak up for minorities. With his belief of equal access for all, he made his labs and databases freely available and as a result has greatly increased progress in the neuroscience field.
Contributing BW student:
Ciara Olive: Biology major, Studio Art minor