Ben Barres, Leading Neuroscientist and Trans Advocate, Dead at 63

Ben Barres

Ben Barres, a prominent neuroscientist who was transgender, has died at age 63 of pancreatic cancer.

Barres died Wednesday, 20 months after his cancer diagnosis, according to a press release from Stanford University, where he was a professor.

“Ben was a remarkable person. 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,” Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavignesaid in the release. “He was also a beloved mentor to students and trainees, a dear friend to many in our community, and a champion for the fundamental dignity of us all.”

Barres’s research established the importance of glial cells, collectively known as glia, which make up nine out of 10 brain cells that aren’t nerve cells but were once dismissed by scientists as insignificant. “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,” said Thomas Clandinin, a Stanford professor of neurobiology. “People had thought glia were mere passive participants in maintaining neural function. Ben’s own work and that of his trainees transformed this view entirely.”

“If you took the Barres lab out of the field of glial studies, there would be no field,” added Martin Raff, a University College London professor with whom Barres trained.

Barres and his team made discoveries regarding the role of certain glial cells in such degenerative disorders as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases; multiple sclerosis; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease; and glaucoma. He once called this “the most important discovery my lab has ever made.”

He chaired the neurobiology department from 2008 until April 2016, the time of his cancer diagnosis. Clandinin succeeded him. Barres joined Stanford as an assistant professor of neurobiology in 1993, then became an associate professor in 1998 and a full professor in 2001. He created the master of science in medicine program and directed it from 2005 on.

He never downplayed being transgender and “was an outspoken champion of marginalized minorities in academia and society, not infrequently digressing for a few minutes during his scientific talks to point out the differences he’d personally experienced in how other scientists treated him when they perceived him as a woman versus as a man,” the news release notes. He was mentioned in a 2006 Advocate article on successful transgender academics, which applauded.his response to sexist comments made by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers.

Barres was the first trans person admitted into the National Academy of Science, reports Forbes. “He was a tireless advocate for women in academia, and for his students,” the Forbes article continues. “Professors often hold on to their students’ projects; Barre insisted they take those projects with them.  He was a figure toward whom a great many other scientists felt a strong emotional bond.”

Barres’s success came even though he suffered from face blindness — known formally as prosopagnosia, an inability to distinguish faces. He “relied on voices or visual cues such as hats and hairstyles to identify even people he knew well,” according to the Stanford release.

Below, watch two videos recorded by Barres, one on science, the other on his transition.

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