For a long time scientists didn ́t understand the function of one particular type of cell in the nervous system, commonly found in the brain, that is not a neuron. These cells are found in the brain and spinalcord and today we know that it is part of the “brain support system” and that there are several types of these cells. Some of them create myelin, hold neurons in place, transport nutrients and remove pathogenic or dead nerve cells. In practical terms, they represent both the cleaners and the “immune system” of the brain and spinal cord. They are glial cells, and of which there are several types – oligodentrocytes, astrocytes, microglia, ependymal cells …
These cells were discovered long ago – first noticed in 1856 by a German scientist, Rudolph Virchow, oneof the “fathers of cytology.” However, prior to the scientific work of Ben Barres, no one really had any idea why these stations exist and what their function is.
So who is Ben Barres?

Barres is an American neurobiologist, with a background in medicine from Stanford. He was born September 13, 1954 in New Jersey as Barbara Barres. Barbara was extremely talented in mathematics and the natural sciences, and later earned a Bachelor’s degree in biology from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1976 and a Master’s in medicine in 1979. She soon became interested in the causes of neurodegeneration and one particular thing caught her eye – where the distribution of glia cells was uneven, there were more signs of neurodegeneration. Barres directs this to the field of neurobiology and goes to Harvard, where he received his doctorate in this field in 1990. 


 

Ben Barres before transition to man
Not long after, Barbara Barres changed gender and became a man. It’s true that Barres had always been a bit of a tomboy, but it took him a while to figure out which body he felt more comfortable in. Barres decided to have the gender changing procedure in his 40s. In 1997, when Barres was 43, he took on the name Ben. 

Thus, with continued scientific advances, the discovery of new and very significant things in the field of glial cell research and the causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Ben Barres also becomes a major advocate for women’s rights in the STEM field. As a person who had felt the sexism and the undermining of the abilities of women on his own skin, once Barres reached a position of power, he spoke about these problems on behalf of all women who were going through what he had gone through while he was a woman.
Of course, his position as a transgender person was not easy either, but through his work and his very serious scientific achievements, he had attained a position from which he could be heard. Also, his gender change was welcomed by colleagues and they supported him.
Whilst a woman, Barres solved a very difficult mathematical task, only to have his professor say “your boyfriend solved your task.” As a woman, in a male-dominated science field, he experienced worse things – he didn’t get a scholarship to go to school because it was awarded to another man despite Barres being the top contender. He also didn’t receive a single award during his PhD studies at Harvard. The award went to a male competitor – who gave up his scientific career after a year!
Another sad anecdote testifies to the so-called. Matilda Effect, the undermining of women’s success in academia:
“Ben Barres has just completed a lecture at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, describing to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his findings about glia cells A scientist was overheard saying what a great lecture it was and added, “Ben Barres’ work is much better than his sister’s.” (according to a text by Sharon Begley published in The Wall Street Journal 2006)
In an essay written in 2006 for Nature, Ben talked about his experience of gender change: “People who don’t know I’m a transgender person treat me with a lot more respect. They can even complete the whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
He insisted that people who are disadvantaged are marginalized in a community – such as women in
STEM – stop being seen as less able. He also fought for a better position for postdoctoral students, also a marginalized and elected group, without a permanent position and security in life.
Of the scientific achievements of this great man, several of them need to be highlighted: his laboratory isolated a specific type of glia, A1 astrocytes, and found that these cells secrete a toxin that triggers degenerative processes in the brain. Thanks to this finding, an experimental drug was developed that blocks the emergence of these glia – a drug that was one of the first substances in the treatment of conditions such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.
Another of his most significant findings was that nerve cells grown in the absence of glial, form fewer synapses and that the formed synapses are not fully operative. This has definitely removed the veil of ignorance from glial cells and scientists have stopped seeing them as some vague supplement to the nervous system.
He was a scientist completely devoted to his work, spending sometimes even 18 hours in the laboratory. On December 27, 2017, Barres passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 63 in Stanford, California. His memoir, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, was published posthumously,documenting his remarkable life story.

This article is part of the project “US scientist who changed the world”, grant donor US Embassy BiH.
Translated by Jonas Helgason, volunteer.
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Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.