Transition and Triumph: A Transgender Scientist’s Story

From Undark:

In 1997, a Stanford University neuroscientist wrote a letter to his colleagues. He signed the letter with his birth name, Barbara Barres, but made it clear that from now on he wished to be known as Ben. “Whenever I think about changing my gender role, I am flooded with feelings of relief,” he wrote.

“I hope that despite my trans sexuality you will allow me to continue with the work that, as you all know, I love,” he concluded his letter.

To Barres’ great joy, his fellow scientists responded with unwavering support. What they didn’t know was that he’d been unable to sleep for a week as he mulled whether to transition to male or commit suicide. His new autobiography — published, sadly, after his death last year from pancreatic cancer — testifies to his personal courage on two fronts: first, as a dogged investigator of glia, the brain’s most numerous cells, which many had written off as purposeless; and second, as an advocate for female and gender-nonconforming scientists.

An intense and sagacious child, Ben Barres — born Barbara — decided he wanted to be a scientist before reaching his fifth birthday. He favored microscopes and chemistry sets over dresses and jewelry. By college, it was clear his genius was equal to his dedication. He earned prestigious scholarships that helped fund a biology degree at MIT, then went on to tackle a medical degree at Dartmouth.

The early challenges Barres faced often stemmed from appearing female in a male-dominated field. When he was the only person in an MIT class to solve an artificial intelligence problem, the professor scoffed and insisted his boyfriend must have done the work. As Barres deflected such slights, he began to confront the growing knowledge that he was a man living in a woman’s body — something he felt no one else would understand. “I was too confused to talk with anyone about it or to have any idea what to say,” he writes.

His distress wasn’t enough to derail his career. Pulling 18- to 20-hour workdays in the lab fulfilled him and kept his identity issues at bay. When he set up his first lab at Stanford in 1993, he jumped into a project he’d begun while completing his Harvard neurobiology doctorate: figuring out the function of glial cells.

The traditional belief was that glia were the neural equivalent of “junk DNA”: they took up space in the brain and served no well-defined purpose. But over time, and despite a series of grant rejections, Barres and his collaborators discovered there was much more to the story. Glia not only convey a variety of signals to neurons, they also control the formation of synapses, the crucial junctions between brain cells.

Barres’ description of his research sometimes feels too in-the-weeds for a lay reader; certain sections of text are replete with so many acronyms they need a decoder key. But sprinkled in are some crystalline descriptions of his biggest contributions and why they matter. His lab purified a specific type of glia, A1 astrocytes, and discovered that they secrete a toxin that drives degenerative processes in the brain. Thanks to that finding, they developed an experimental drug that blocks the formation of these glia — a drug with potential to treat conditions like Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes paralysis.

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