Hi and welcome to Queer STEM History Podcast, where we explore the lives and science of some notable queer scientists throughout the ages. I’m one of your hosts, Len, and I use they/them pronouns, and I’m your other host, Lauren, and I use she/her pronouns. And I’m really excited about our show today, I’ve wanted to tell this story ever since we started the podcast. I’m really excited too, like on my bike on the way to Uni today I was like “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes we get to talk about it.”
So today we will be telling the story of Ben Barres, a passionate neurobiologist who studied the role of brain cells in development, disease and general human brain functions. He was also an ardent advocate for marginalised groups in academia and was the first openly trans man to be offered membership of the prestigious National Academy of Science.
And as we discussed in our first episode, you don’t really hear that much about people’s personal lives, so we just open up stories that, that besides being a massive hard worker like so so dedicated to research, he actually found it quite fine he once said “science is fun almost like a playful addition. But we do know quite a bit about his personal life that he enjoyed cycling in the hills around where he lived, he roasted his own coffee beans and would often share it with his lab groups, saying here here have some just give me some feedback, and was a massive fan of Harry Potter and would take his whole lab group to the screenings of each new film. I’m so jealous I didn’t have a lab supervisor like him.
So in his early life, Ben had a strong passion for science, but being treated as a girl, he found it hard to pursue - being repeatedly denied access to courses in science and engineering. A summer science programme with no gender restrictions at Columbia University in New York City finally provided access to these subjects, and led him to pursue a bachelor of science degree in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Pretty big deal!
In 1979, Barres completed a medical degree at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and then a neurology residency at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. He was intrigued that so many of the diseases that impair brain and nervous-system function involve glial cells, yet so little was known at the time about their biology.
Glial cells are basically a group of 4 types of cells in the nervous system that aren’t neurons. So initially people didn’t really know what their function were, glial, I think, means glue because they thought they just stick all this brain matter together, but later it became known that they have so many more functions.
So Barres became really interested in these glial cells so decided to leave medicine to do a doctorate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, on the function and distribution of cation channels in glial cells.
His research focused on the interaction between neurons and glial cells in the nervous system. Barres’ research on the brain’s glial cells “revolutionised the field of neuroscience.
During a postdoc at University College London, Barres discovered that developing neurons provide signals to the my…myelinating glial cells — pardon all of my terrible biology butchering I’m doing right now – so it provides signals to myelinating glial cells the oligodendrocytes — to insulate neuronal axons.
His findings and vocal presence at meetings were largely responsible for the acceptance that glial cells contribute to brain development, function and disease.
These include the identification of glial-derived factors that promote the formation and elimination of synapses, and the characterization of signals that induce the formation of myelin, the lipid sheathing on neurons.
Barres took tremendous pleasure from working on important but neglected problems. “Ninety-nine per cent of neuroscientists work on 1% of the interesting questions,” he said, “It is so much more exciting to work on the untouched mysteries!”
During his time presenting as female throughout his early career, Ben noted several experiences of gender discrimination, and how he was treated changed once he began passing as a man.
A few examples of this:
In his undergrad after solving a difficult math problem that stumped many male students, his professor charged that it was solved for him by a boyfriend.
Another time, he was the top student in the class, but found it hard to get a willing supervisor for research.
He also lost a scholarship to a man who had only one publication, while he already had six.
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. Its pretty disappointing.
In 1997, Ben had opened up to 3 trusted friends, telling them all about his gender dysphoria and his plans to maybe undergo transition. However he had had a lot of concerns for his career and was a bit cautious when asking his straight friends. But immediately they were very strongly supportive. So he began making plans for transition and to come out to all his friends, family and workplace.
“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 identity 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.”
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. 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.” It’s just ridiculous isn’t it? Like they’re the same person, same research. But just because there was a different name to attach, they were able to say oh the woman’s work is so much inferior. It makes no sense. It reminds me about that study where they do the two identical job applications I think its one with the name Jane and one with John and John got the job most of the time even though they were the exact same application.
Barres said: “People who don’t know I am transgender treat me with much more respect,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”
Barres devoted much of his last decade to publicly describing the challenges he had faced as a woman in science, and offering ways to correct a system that he viewed as fundamentally biased against the advancement of women and minorities. He also called for mentors to be held more accountable for the training and success of their graduate students and postdocs.
In an essay in Nature, ‘Does gender matter?’, he helped to debunk the idea of intrinsic gender differences in scientific ability. Barres worked relentlessly to improve the representation of women in all areas of science: as faculty members and conference or departmental seminar presenters, and in leadership positions. To support that aim, he volunteered for countless selection committees, editorial boards and grant-reviewing panels, and spoke up. He would be combative if needed — and the effect he had was impressive and inspiring.
Ben was an excellent mentor to all his lab group, who he treated like family. Even after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in April 2016 he never stopped mentoring his students and postdocs, and toiled feverishly to update and archive their letters of support in anticipation of their future career developments after his death.
He also was a mentor to others. One trans student, while applying to doctoral programs, sat down with Ben for a one-hour meeting. Ben wasn’t even in the same field, the student studied marine biology, but the importance of the meeting was clear
“That one conversation was extremely pivotal for me,” “Being in an office of someone who is so successful who had gone through the same things that I had gone through” was meaningful, said Matsuda. “That moment was really powerful and really important for me in finding myself and that I belong [in STEM].”
We know there are difficulties of labelling people when they themsleves did not have the words for those labels, but from Ben’s autobiography in which he discusses his life as a scientist and a transgender person, there’s evidence that he was also a case of representation of other queer identities.
I actually saw a twitter thread on this recently by Claudia M Astorino @claudistics (she/her) on twitter, she noticed that Ben states that he was born with Mullerian agenesis which is actually a form of #intersex aka MRKH, Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser
Claudia went on to say in another tweet that “like the vast majority of #intersex people who are medicalized, Barres was told he had not a form of intersex - a bodily way of being that was less common - but that instead he just had a a medical condition.” in his autobiography, he references his MRKH as such, as a medical anomaly, rather than just a different body or different way of being.
But what if Ben Barres hadn’t been told his MRKH was just a medical condition? What if he was told he was intersex and he felt empowered to embrace and identify with it? He would be out as intersex and transgender and able to advise and encourage other intersex scientists just as he has done for many trans scientists.
So as we spoke about before, there were some trans scientists who had the opportunity to talk to Ben Barres and be mentored about how to navigate science and academia while being trans and Claudia said that she’d always dreamed of having an intersex scientist to talk to, to know that they were there and that they exist. And that person could have been Ben Barres for her.
Unfortunately, since Ben has now passed away, she doesn’t have that rolemodel, but she realised that she could be that person for other budding intersex scientists. And she thinks how important it is to be someone to stand up and help people to pursue careers with more information and greater confidence and with greater joy in life.
And that’s what Len and I are hoping to do not just in our podcast but in our careers as well. But we don’t want to just showcase historic ones, we really want to encourage you all to go check up projects like 500 queer scientists so you can see all of the amazing people out there, and that we are there and we are succeeding in science.
The other thing I noticed in Ben’s autobiography a line that says that as a teenager he never really felt any attraction and then said “It was only much later as an adult that I realised that I lack the ability to experience sexual attraction” And in his obituary as well it said “Ben confided that he’d never had much interest in romantic relationships or having children. He told me: “I’ve always considered my colleagues as my family, and my students and my postdocs as my children.” Seeing them flourish and succeed was one of his greatest sources of joy.”
So from what that sounds I know he didn’t have the words for that but it sounds like he represents being asexual and aromantic and really, the more I was researching Ben for this the more I wish I could have met him that kind of rolemodel. Like having general queer scientists as rolemodels is great, but when you find someone who shares your identities and have all those similar experiences it just means so much more.
But unfortunately Ben did pass away from cancer in December 2017. He was remarkably brave and reflective about his illness and the life he’d led. As he put it: “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.”
So for this weeks queer science bucketlist we’ve got something a bit more wholesome, rather than owning a farm which does sound wonderful it’s just a bit of a life motto - live your life on your own terms, stand up for what you believe in and do what makes you happy
Thank you so much for tuning in and listening to our podcast. Researching Ben has just been a great experience and I am ready to go home and order his autobiography and just read it all it sounds fascinating and I really want to find out even more about his life.
So thank you for listening and hope you join us next week for another wonderful episode. This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Australian National University Centre for the Public Awareness of Science and them letting us sue their podcast studio and all of their equipment. You can find us on Facebook at QueerSTEMHistory, Twitter at QSTEMHistory, or on our website. Links to all of those are in the podcast description, and you’ll also find links to where we’ve done all our research if you want to investigate further. Hope you all enjoyed listening and we’ll see you all next week.