STEM History:

Benjamin Arthur “Ben” Barres 


American neurobiologist 

Birth/Death Dates

Born Barbara A. Barres

September 13, 1954 – December 27, 2017


Ben Barres’s research focused on the interaction between neurons and glial cells in the nervous system. In 2008, he became the 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 National Academy of Sciences in 2013.

Educational Background

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (BS)
  • Dartmouth College (MD)
  • Weill Cornell Medicine, Residency in Neurology
  • Harvard University (Ph.D.)

Struggles this Innovator Overcame

Barres experienced gender discrimination while presenting as female before transitioning. Examples include:

  • After solving a complex math problem that stumped many male students, his MIT professor suggested that a boyfriend had solved it for him. 
  • Although he was the top student in the class, getting a research supervisor was difficult.
  • He lost a scholarship to a male student with only one publication while he had six.

After transitioning, people who were not aware of his transgender status treated him with more respect than when he presented as a woman. He spoke and wrote openly about his experiences of being treated differently as a female scientist versus a male scientist.

Problems this Innovator Solved

Barres’s first significant discovery was how developing neurons provide signals to the myelinating glial cells called the oligodendrocytes that provide insulation on the axons. Some of his earliest works focused on vertebrate nervous system development, including how and why many neurons fail to survive shortly after forming connections with their targets. These studies investigated how this programmed cell death, apoptosis, occurred on such a tremendous scale.

How this innovator changed the world (or at least their corner of it)

Early in his time at Stanford, Barres discovered the importance of glial cells in the formation, development, maturation, and regeneration of neurons. His lab also discovered and developed methods for purifying and culturing retinal ganglion cells and the glial cells with which they interact, including the oligodendrocytes and astrocytes of the optic nerve.

In the 2010s, Barres’s lab discovered several novel glial signals for the induction of myelination, axonal sodium channel clustering, and synapse formation processes. Additionally, his lab characterized these processes and the exact identity of these novel signals.

Lasting changes from this innovator’s work or how they trailblazed

Barres died on December 27, 2017, twenty months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In a recollection of his life, he said:

“I lived life on my terms: I wanted to switch genders, and I did. I wanted to be a scientist, and I was. I wanted to study glia, and I did that too. I stood up for what I believed in and I like to think I made an impact, or at least opened the door for the impact to occur. I have zero regrets and I’m ready to die. I’ve truly had a great life”.

Written by Donna Abosch