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Video: Episode 1: Ben Barres

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Presented by: Meghan Grubb, MA, MS


Introductory Slide

Welcome to Episode One of the Diverse Scientist Highlights Series! If you have not yet watched our Introductory Episode for this series, please do so before watching this episode. Our Introductory Episode defines diversity and the importance of having a diverse work force. It also explains why we created the Diverse Scientist Highlights series. Be sure to check it out before continuing!

Slide Two

Without further a due, episode one of the Diverse Scientist Highlights series features Ben Barres, an American neurobiologist at Stanford University.

Slide Three

Ben was born on September 13, 1954 and, unfortunately, recently passed away from cancer on December 27, 2017, at the age of 63. Ben was born in West Orange, New Jersey where he lived with his salesman father and homemaker mother. At the start of Ben’s college career, he studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, otherwise known as MIT where he earned a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology. Ben then went on to receive his medical degree or MD from Dartmouth Medical School and completed his residency in neurology at Weill (While) Cornell Medicine. During his residency, Ben’s interest in the lack of research about the causes or cures of neural degeneration led him to resign his residency to pursue research in neuroscience at Harvard University. He completed a PhD in neurobiology in 1990 and did his postdoctoral training at University College London.

Slide Four

After completing his postdoctoral training, Ben joined the faculty at Stanford University, became a professor, and, ultimately, the Chair of Neurobiology. As a scientist, he published over 160 scientific articles, which was no small feat. His passion and drive for research led to many accomplishments such as being the keynote speaker at conferences such as the Society for Neuroscience, being elected into the National Academy of Sciences, and becoming the co-founder of Annexon Biosciences, Inc., a company making drugs to block neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

Slide Five

Now, you may be wondering why Ben Barres is being highlighted as our first Diverse Scientist in this series. Does anyone want to take a guess?

Slide Six

Ben Barres was originally born as Barbara Barres, and he was the first openly transgender scientist in the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. From an early age, Ben never felt comfortable being treated as female. In his autobiography, he writes, “internally I felt strongly that I was a boy. This was evident in everything about my behavior.”

Slide Seven

At the age of 17, Ben learned that he had been born with Mullerian agenesis due to exposure of masculinizing hormones in utero. His medical condition caused him to be born without a uterus and other components of the female reproductive system. After learning about his medical condition, Ben received plastic surgery to correct the defects, but continued to live his life as Barbara as he received his MD and PhD degrees.

Slide Eight

As Barbara, Ben experienced gender discrimination on his journey to being one of the top neurobiologists in the country. While at MIT, he was the only student in the class to solve a difficult math problem, but his professor assumed that he had the help of a boyfriend. At this time, many believed that women were not as smart as men or not as capable of succeeding in STEM-related fields. Unfortunately, this experience of gender discrimination was not the last for Ben. After he transitioned to male, he noticed that people who did not know about his transgender status treated him with more respect than when he presented as a woman. In fact, after delivering his first seminar as a man, he overheard one scientist comment, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work.” This scientist believed that Barbara was Ben’s sister, not Ben.

Slide Nine

Ben’s unique experience as first a woman and then a man in a male-dominated science field allowed him to witness pervasive sexism and be an advocate for equal treatment between female and male scientists. As a respected scientist, Ben helped to debunk the idea of intrinsic gender differences in science. He worked to improve the representation of women in all areas of science and volunteered for countless selection committees, editorial boards, and grant-review panels to advocate for women. His memoir, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, documents his remarkable life story and his heroic fight for people of various genders and LGBTQ community.

Slide Ten

Ben Barres is the perfect example of an individual who stood up for what he believed in regardless of his differences compared to others in his field. Ben lived by the modo, “Be yourself, be fearless, and be proud of the unique differences you can bring to the table.” It is our honor to highlight Ben Barres as our first diverse scientist in this series! To learn about another incredible diverse scientist, check out episode two. Thank you.