June 1, 2019

Book Review: The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist by Ben A. Barres

By Crystal Mendoza

By: Samantha M. Bouchal

I came upon Ben Barres’ autobiography completely by chance, while conducting a literature review on glia. A paper published in Nature by his laboratory, “Neurotoxic reactive astrocytes are induced by activated microglia”, had been cited no less than 853 times, and I had wanted to learn more about the exciting work this group was doing. To my chagrin, I learned that Dr. Barres had passed away in December of 2017 of pancreatic cancer, at age 63. Wanting to learn more about his life and legacy, I read Andrew Huberman’s 2018 eulogy (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-08964-1), which told a beautiful story. In addition to making groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of glia in both normal physiology and disease, Dr. Barres had been a lifelong advocate for women and minorities in science. Using the power and prestige only a principal investigator (PI) could wield, he convinced powerful people to make meaningful change (such as changing the nomination and selection procedures for the NIH Pioneer Award and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator appointments).

It was in reading about his advocacy that I stumbled across Dr. Barres’ book, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. Born as Barbara in 1954, Dr. Barres knew from childhood that his biological (assigned) sex did not match his “brain sex”, or conception of gender. He details in the “Life” section of his memoir the shame he carried and suicidal ideation he experienced as a result of having to hide who he was, and the deep fear he felt when, at age 43, he made the decision to transition from female to male and come out to his Stanford colleagues.

Photo Credit: Amazon

Dr. Barres’ transition gave him a unique perspective on the treatment of women in science and society. Having completed scientific, medical, and postdoctoral training as Barbara, Dr. Barres had experienced plenty of gender discrimination as a woman. Nancy Hopkins writes in the Foreword: “As an MIT undergrad, Barbara was the only student in a class to solve an unusually challenging math problem, but the professor refused to give her credit. He accused her of cheating, saying her boyfriend must have solved it.” The difference in the treatment of men and women in science became truly unambiguous to Dr. Barres after transitioning. After giving a talk on his world-renowned research on glia at a conference, Ben Barres overheard an attendee remark that his work was clearly much better than that of his sister’s (referring, of course, to Barbara!).

To the benefit of the scientific community, Dr. Barres would not stand for this nonsense. He wrote the withering “Does Gender Matter?” in 2006 (https://www.nature.com/articles/442133a) as a response to a speech given by Harvard president Larry Summers in 2005. Summers had asserted that few women were tenured in STEM at Harvard because they were innately inferior and chose family over careers in science. Dr. Barres dedicates an entire section of his autobiography to his advocacy work and visions for a truly egalitarian future in science. It should be noted too that his sensitivity to the great need for diversity in science extends beyond the challenges women and transgender folks face; he calls for greater efforts to tear down barriers faced by ethnic minorities as well as low-income and first-generation college students.

True to his roots as a great scientist and deep thinker, Dr. Barres includes a review of the incredible research his lab completed from his appointment at Stanford in 1993 until his death in 2017. Following their journey – from finding a way to culture and maintain pure CNS neurons to detailing the role of astrocytes and microglia in synapse formation, maintenance, and loss in normal physiology and disease – is riveting. Perhaps even more beautiful, however, is that Dr. Barres mentions each trainee by name and contribution to the aforementioned science. He knew where every trainee came from, what they were interested in, and where they went after their time in his lab. He encouraged independent thought and allowed his trainees to advance their own lines of inquiry. He writes, “I did not realize when I started my own lab at Stanford that this was going to be, by far, the most rewarding part of the job… it is even more exhilarating to watch young people develop into independent scientists and to play some role in guiding that process.”

Science is in sore need of more people like Ben Barres – people who are willing to fight bigotry and incompetence from positions of power while implementing ideas about diversity in their own labs and lives. Undoubtedly we have come a long way since Barbara Barres attended MIT in the early 1970s, but we have a long way to go. (For a comprehensive report on the progress made by women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in STEM until 2016, please visit https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/field-of-degree-women#physical-sciences.)

I’ll close this review with my favorite anecdote from the book, included in the Foreword as an example of the tour de force that was Ben Barres. Having been asked to speak about advances in “glioscience” at a university in the Netherlands with a particularly unsavory record of excluding females, Dr. Barres responded to the invitation with the following (again from Nancy Hopkins’ Foreword):

“Dear Sir,

You have a hell of a lot of nerve inviting me after sending me that speaker list.

   it looks like out of your last 35 speakers, only 1 has been a woman??!

   I wouldn’t visit your school if you were the last school on earth. Do you think that women are not doing equally good science? And what about the half of your trainees that are women (not to mention the men)? Do you really mean to teach them that the only ones worthy of inviting are men??

  I would suggest that if you want to hear a really great talk about glia that you invite some of my previous women trainees to come speak in my place … [here Ben names three women]. Any of them would give a tremendously good talk. Looks like your faculty is not particularly diverse either (1 woman out of 17?????!!!!). I always thought Netherlands was one of the good places. Looks like I was wrong.

   I am going to decline your invitation but perhaps in 5-10 years if you have cleaned up your act. I won’t be holding my breath. Something is really rotten about your department.

  Please don’t invite me again


It is a mark of how well-known and respected an advocate Ben Barres was that the response he received was apologetic. With more advocates like Dr. Barres taking a stand in STEM, we will move further towards the diverse, inquisitive, and inclusive field we all deserve to work in.

About the author: Samantha Bouchal is a senior at Duke University and current summer student in Isobel Scarisbrick’s lab at Mayo Clinic. She loves neuroscience, and is especially excited about the biology of brain disease. When she’s not at the bench, Samantha enjoys playing the piano, spending time with dogs, and working on her artistic project, Seeing Science: Exploring Humanity in STEM.

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