Ben Barres

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Ben A. Barres
Dr. Ben Barres.jpg
Born 1955 (age 61–62)
West Orange, New Jersey, US
Residence California
Nationality US
Citizenship US
Alma mater M.I.T. (BS)
Dartmouth College (MD)
Harvard Medical School (PhD)
Known for Neuroscience
Gender discrimination
Scientific career
Fields Neurobiology
Institutions Stanford University
Doctoral advisor David Corey

Ben A. Barres is an American neurobiologist at Stanford University.[1] His research focuses on the interaction between neurons and glial cells in the nervous system. Since 2008, he has been Chair of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine. He transitioned to male in 1997, and became the first openly transgender scientist in the US National Academy of Sciences in 2013.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Barres was born in West Orange, New Jersey, assigned female, and named Barbara. His father was a salesman. Attending a West Orange school, he excelled in mathematics and science and was impressed by his eighth-grade teacher Jeffrey Davis.[3][4] He obtained a BS degree in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a medical degree (MD) from Dartmouth Medical School, neurology residency training at Weill Cornell, and a doctorate (PhD) in neurobiology from Harvard University.[5] He did his postdoctoral training at University College London under Martin Raff. In 1993 he joined the faculty of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine. In 1997,[6] he changed sex from female to male and has published on sexism in the sciences. In 2008 he was appointed to the Chair of Neurobiology.[1]


He studies the development and function of glial cells in the mammalian central nervous system. He has pioneered novel methods to culture and purify glial cells from rodents' optic nerves (oligodendrocytes and astrocytes) and the neurons they interact with (retinal ganglion cells). His research targets the roles of glia normally, and in the failure of the central nervous system (CNS) to regenerate and the role of glia in Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.[7]

Experience of sexism[edit]

Barres has described experiences of gender discrimination in MIT. Once, after solving a difficult math problem that stumped many male students, he was charged with an accusation that it was solved for him by a boyfriend. He was the top student in the class, but found it hard to get a willing supervisor for research. He lost a scholarship to a man who had only one publication, while he already had six.[8] While earning a PhD at Harvard, he was told that he was to win a scientific competition, which was evidently between him and one man; the Dean confided to him, “I have read both applications, and it’s going to be you; your application is so much better.” But the award was given to the man, who dropped out of science a year later.[9]

After transitioning, he noticed that people who were not aware of his transgender status treated him with respect much more than when he presented as a woman.[10] After delivering his first seminar as a man, one scientist was overheard to comment, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s [believing Barbara to be his sister] work.”[11] In 2012, he recollected the events of his sex change as:[12]

When I decided to change sex 15 years ago I didn't have role models to point to. I thought that I had to decide between identify and career. I changed sex thinking my career might be over. The alternative choice I seriously contemplated at the time was suicide, as I could not go on as Barbara.

Barres was critical of Lawrence Summers and others who have claimed that one reason there are fewer women than men in science and engineering professorships might be that fewer women than men had the very high levels of "intrinsic aptitude" that such jobs required.[10] He speaks and writes openly about being a trans man and his experiences transitioning gender identity in 1997,[13] and his experiences of being treated differently as a female scientist versus a male scientist.[14]

More recently, Barres directed a series of "open questions" to Steven Pinker and Harvey Mansfield in a formal address at Harvard, challenging the data supporting their arguments.[15]

Awards and honors[edit]

Barres' research awards include a Life Sciences Research Fellowship, the Klingenstein Fellowship Award, a McKnight Investigator Award,[16] and a Searle Scholar Award. He has also won teaching awards: the Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the Kaiser Award for Innovative and Outstanding Contributions to Medical Education. In 2008 he received the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award.[17] He is inducted member of the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury.[18] He is a co-founder of Annexon Biosciences, Inc., a company making drugs to block neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases.[19] He is member and elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011.[20] In 2013 he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences,[21] becoming the first openly transgender member.[2] Along with Tom Jessell, he was awarded the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) 2016 conference in San Diego.[22]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Ben Barres Professor of Neurobiology, of Developmental Biology and of Neurology". Stanford School o0f Medicine. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Trans News Editors (11 May 2013). "Neurobiologist Becomes First Transgender Scientist Selected For U.S. National Academy of Science Membership". Transnews. Trans Media Network. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  3. ^ Krattenmaker, Tom (10 March 1999). "The Highest Art". Princeton University. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  4. ^ "A Conversation with Dr. Ben Barres". The Travis Roy Foundation. Retrieved 3 July 2015. 
  5. ^ NIH, (Oct. 2008). Ben A. Barres, M.D., Ph.D. Archived 2011-03-20 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Barres Laboratory". Reev Foundation. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Begley, Sharon (13 July 2006). "He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Dean, Cornelia (18 July 2006). "Dismissing 'Sexist Opinions' About Women's Place in Science". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Vedantam, Shankar (13 July 2003). "Male Scientist Writes of Life as Female Scientist". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  11. ^ "Transgender Experience Led Stanford Scientist To Critique Gender Difference". ScienceDaily. 14 July 2006. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  12. ^ Maddox, Sam. "Barres Elected To National Academy of Sciences". Reeve Foundation. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  13. ^ Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2009) SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance p.47
  14. ^ Sharon Begley, (July 13, 2006). He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat. Wall Street Journal
  15. ^ Ben Barres, (March 17, 2008). "Some Reflections on the Dearth of Women in Science", Harvard University.
  16. ^ Strobel, Gabrielle (2010). Research Funding in Neuroscience: A Profile of the McKnight Endowment Fund. Academic Press. pp. 77–. ISBN 9780080466538. 
  17. ^ Bates, Mary (27 February 2013). "Ben Barres: Glial Detective". Society for Neuroscience. 
  18. ^ Maddox, Sam. "Stanford Scientist Ben Barres Joins Reeve Research Consortium". Reev Foundation. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  19. ^ "Executive Profile Ben Barres M.D., Ph.D". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  20. ^ AAAS staff (6 December 2011). "AAAS Members Elected as Fellows". AAAS. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  21. ^ "National Academy of Sciences Members and Foreign Associates Elected". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 11 October 2014. 
  22. ^ "Society for Neuroscience". Retrieved 2017-01-23. 

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