Ben Barres, MD, PhD MED ’79 Elected to the US National Academy of Sciences

"Great science starts with curiosity. There are no easy problems...That's what drives the creativity, the perseverance, and hopefully the rigor."

Ben Barres, MD, PhD, a pioneering neuroscientist, completed his medical degree at Dartmouth in 1979. After earning a doctorate from Harvard University, Barres set up his own lab in the neurobiology department, which he would later chair, of Stanford University School of Medicine. In his 2018 memoir, published posthumously by MIT Press, Barre detailed the experiences early in his life that drew him to science, his advocacy for women and transgender scientists, and his passion for glial cell research. He is the first openly transgendered member to be elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

His death in 2017, prompted remembrances from the Geisel School of Medicine, excerpted below:

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Ben Barres
Credit: Stanford School of Medicine
Ben Barres, MD, PhD MED ’79, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, died December 27, 2017 in Palo Alto, CA.

An internationally renowned neuroscientist, his discoveries revolutionized the field of neuroscience. Barres authored or co-authored more than 160 articles about his work published in journals, many in highly regarded publications such as Nature and Cell. He is also remembered as an outspoken advocate for equality and inclusion in science.

As befitted his personality to take roads often poorly explored, Barres’s laboratory made seminal discoveries as to the role of glial cells in the central nervous system.  His work established that the then-understudied glial cells are critical components to “sustaining the overall architecture of the brain’s constellation of synapses, through which neurons pass signals to one another," and that signaling among different classes of glial cells plays a key role in neurodegeneration that characterizes diseases ranging from Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and multiple sclerosis.

Former Dartmouth Medical School classmate Peter A. Cohen D ’72, MED ’79, a professor of medicine and consultant at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, says, “Ben had risen to a position of world-renowned scientist but was also a ‘beloved statesman’—two words seldom heard together these days—advocating for fairness and transparency in science. Probably no other alum in recent memory has achieved such high objective prominence, and deservedly so.”

Leslie Henderson, a professor of physiology and neurobiology, dean for faculty affairs, and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Geisel, says of Barres, “While his science alone would have insured a place of prominence for Ben, his willingness to not only forge his own often difficult path (Barres was transgender, transitioning in 1997), but to be an outspoken advocate for women (from his unique perspective of lived life in science as both a woman and a man) and other under-represented minorities was transformative.  Even for those who may never have met him, he changed the way we view our world, both inside and outside of science. That is a legacy to which he could be deservedly proud.”

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