Ben Barres was a remarkable scientist – a modern-day giant who will undoubtedly be remembered in the field of neuroscience as a pioneer in uncovering the critical role of glia. He will also be remembered as a powerful proponent for advancement of women in science, and a leader in recognizing the importance of strong mentorship and imploring scientists to do better for their trainees. While we at A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman explore the daily experiences and some major issues that arise for women as scientists, Ben Barres was one of the few people who has the ability to directly compare the experience of being female and male in science, and has been publicly vocal about what he learned. His now famous anecdote is highlighted here (in an article about his public stance on the role of discrimination in keeping women from advancing in science): “After he began living as a man in 1997, Barres overheard another scientist say, ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work’” (Adams 2006, Stanford Report).
Perhaps surprisingly though, his autobiography, simply titled The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, does not focus on the contrasting experience between his experience as a young female scientist and the changes he experienced after transitioning to the male gender to which he had always felt he belonged. Instead, it is a telling of his life story that is so straightforward it reads almost as a ‘results’ section of a manuscript, with little interpretation or connection to other ideas and experiences. Even so, it is a compelling story that makes an easy read. The emphasis on Barres’s interest in scientific research is strong throughout the book, and he takes it to another level by following his life story with an entire section devoted to his research findings – his lab’s autobiography, if you will. The book also concludes with a section emphasizing his advocacy work.
Why we read it and what we got out of it:
Megan: I admire Ben Barres tremendously, both as a scientist and as a human, and was deeply saddened to hear about his death from pancreatic cancer. I would say that he and Maiken Nedergaard started a revolution in the way neuroscientists regard glia. I’ve also heard wonderful things about him from people who have worked with him– he seemed to have been that very rare scientist who was both well-respected and well-liked. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Ben Barres in person, but was glad to be able to read his autobiography to learn more about such a unique and intelligent scientist.
SweetScience: I couldn’t wait to read this book! I had great respect for Ben Barres since I saw him speak to a room full of mostly old white male PIs and take 5 minutes out of his research talk to belabor a point about the importance of mentoring women in science. I’ve enjoyed reading his various commentaries (see links throughout this post) and I wanted to know more about his life in his own words.
peírama: One of Ben Barres’ trainees, now a Harvard professor, taught part of the Cold Spring Harbor course that I attended. She was an impressive woman and spoke glowingly of him. As stated above, this book is a very straightforward telling and feels very much like the prose of a scientist. Regardless, he lived a very interesting life and I enjoyed reading about it and about his science.
What struck you about the story?
SweetScience: I was amazed by the remarkable outpouring of support Barres received when he wrote to his friends and colleagues about his decision to transition. It was incredibly heartwarming to read the positive responses. It also shocked me to hear that Barres apparently never experienced any kind of discrimination ever based on being transgender. I have so many questions about this, wondering about the representativeness of his story; I don’t know any other transgender person who reports experiencing no discrimination, and I worry a bit about popularizing a narrative where discrimination is not an issue. On the other hand, this is his story!
Megan: Like me, Ben Barres hails from a hard-working New Jersey family and was the first to go away to college. I didn’t know this before reading the book, and I could really relate to some of the struggles he describes around growing up.
I also found the narrative around being transgender to be very educational and informative. I think the book did a great job describing what it was like to be a person, a scientist, who deeply and innately felt that their gender did not match who they were.
peírama: A thing that struck me about the story was how different the field of science was not that long ago, but also how much it is the same. People could say incredibly biased things and not only was it without consequence, it was not even out of the ordinary. Barres was recruited (as a woman) to increase universities’ diversity. He struggled to get an R01 because he was studying something novel. Barres got tenure without having received an R01!
Did you have an ‘aha’ moment?
SweetScience: Even someone who experiences no apparent bias from their transgender identity was driven to consider suicide, apparently due solely to inner turmoil, not even depression. This was mentioned multiple times in Barres’s story, and was by far the most intimate aspect of the book.
Megan: This quote: “A counselor who works with people who have recently transitioned once told me that her most difficult challenge is helping male to female transsexuals understand that their suddenly vastly lowered social status is not because they are now transgender but because they are now women.” Woah.
peírama: This is not so much an ‘aha’ as a confirmation of what I already knew. Mentorship is incredibly important to a career in science. Barres repeats numerous times the ways in which his mentors were supportive personally and professionally. Having mentors that guide and support your scientific career and your scientific thinking is critical for a successful career and it is good that there are high-profile scientists out there championing its importance.
Was there anything you didn’t like about the book?
SweetScience: Another story of a scientist whose passion for the science is everything to them, and would rather be in the lab than spend a single day on vacation?! (See our Lab Girl book club post.)
Also, I have to admit I gave up reading the science section. I mean, I know glia are cool, but I don’t actually want to read about it. However, I love the existence of this science story as a story – hearing from a main player how things came about and progressed with the various other people in the lab and beyond.
Megan: Ben Barres was known to be a very supportive mentor, and has written extensively on the topic (two exemplary articles worth reading and sharing: https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(13)00907-0 and https://www.nature.com/news/stop-blocking-postdocs-paths-to-success-1.22515). Somehow, in my mind, I ascribed this high level of interpersonal and management skill to someone with a decent work-life balance, but from the book, I realized this was definitely not the case! Science was Ben Barres’ life, his lab was his home, and his colleagues and trainees were his family. He clearly had no regrets about how he spent his life, but I wonder where that leaves the rest of us who have families outside of the laboratory? Do we have any shot at scientific success (or even survival) if we can’t spend those sorts of hours in lab?
peírama: Ditto the above comments about the lab being his whole life. To each their own, but I wish that there was more representation of scientists who are able to balance family and career. The other thing I did not like was that although Ben Barres has very interesting observations about how gender roles play out in our society, he has some interesting blind spots. He starts off by describing how he knew he was meant to be a boy because he liked “boy things” like trains. It is definitely true that at the time that he was a child that was the viewpoint – boys like boy things, girls like girl things. However, there seemed to be no self-awareness in that description, no understanding that girls can like trains and still be girls.
Megan: The quote on the cover says it all: “By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgender treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.” This was actually taken from a Nature commentary he authored rather than from the body of the book, but I think it does a great job of summarizing what I found most illuminating about The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist — the experience of a scientist who experienced being treated as both a woman and a man. The insights that this extremely unique perspective gave Ben Barres are disturbing yet also incredibly valuable to me, and I think, to the entire field.
peírama: This book is an easy read (especially if you skip the scientific details, though I personally enjoyed those) and an interesting look at a blessed scientific career and a transgender experience. I enjoyed this look through the lens of someone with so many experiences different from my own. Science is such a struggle and it is enjoyable to read this account of a life with so many successes, especially since the setbacks sail by so quickly in such a short book. Highly recommend to all scientists.