Ben Barres - Scientist Highlight
Ben Barres - Scientist Highlight
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Ben first knew he wanted to be a scientist when he was in kindergarten. He grew up in West Orange, NJ, one of four children in a low income family. He was at the top of his high school class in math and science, and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a scholarship. Ben planned to study chemistry or engineering in college, but when he took a neuroscience class, he knew he wanted to learn as much as he could about the human brain. He graduated from MIT in 1976, and went on to medical school at Dartmouth College, where he received his MD in 1979. 

During his residency in clinical neurology, Ben grew increasingly frustrated with all the unknowns about the brain. He decided that the mystery must be hidden within the glial cells, which make up 90% of the brain. Ben was the first scientist to consider the importance of glial cells, or glia; for a long time, glia were considered like glue, simply working to hold the brain together. In order to cure neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Ben realized he needed to learn more about glia. He went back to school, and as his first challenge, had to invent a way to grow the three different types of glial cells in a controlled environment, something that had never been done before. Ben succeeded in this challenge, and shared everything he learned, so that other scientists and researchers could learn from him and make new discoveries of their own. 

Ben completed his PhD in Neuroscience in 1990, and moved to England, to continue his research. In 1993, he was hired at Stanford University as an assistant professor, and continued researching each of the three types of glia as he became a full professor, department chair, and founded a masters program. Over the course of his career, Ben published hundreds of articles, trained countless scientists, and worked tirelessly to uncover the many secrets of the human brain. 

Ben transitioned in 1997, well into his career. At the time, there were not many transgender role models in the sciences, and Ben strived to become that role model: speaking openly about his transition, about other inspiring transgender scientists, and about the hardships and poor treatment that women face in STEM careers. He referenced his own experiences in the field and the differences in how other scientists treated him when they perceived him as a woman versus as a man. Throughout his career, Ben was a passionate advocate for equity and diversity in the sciences, and was the first transgender scientist admitted into the National Academies of Science. Ben died in 2017, at age 63, after a two year battle with pancreatic cancer.

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