A Tribute to Ben Barres
I will never forget the first time I met Ben Barres. It was October, 2015 and I was in Chicago for the annual Society for Neuroscience conference. I was absentmindedly walking through the conference hall lobby one evening when I noticed Ben and a few former Barres lab scientists standing in a small circle chatting. I had recently chosen Richard Daneman as a thesis advisor, and Rich did his PhD with Ben, making me an extended member of the Barres lab family. I was overcome with the thrill of being a part of this wildly impactful science community and wanted more than anything to meet Ben. I decided to go up and introduce myself.
Except I couldn’t. I was thoroughly star-struck. Ben did not exactly look like a celebrity in his usual cargo shorts (in October in Chicago!) and sneakers, but the impact of his science and his tireless fight for gender equality in academia had made him a hero to me (and thousands of others). Suddenly outrageously shy, I think I circled their little circle for a solid five minutes, sometimes getting close, then retreating to a wider radius, occasionally pretending to be buried in my phone so as not to appear too creepy. Even though I couldn’t seem to interrupt them, I also could not give up on meeting Ben. I’m not sure how this amazingly awkward situation would have ended had I not run into a friend who, after hearing my dilemma, laughed at me and helped me get my introduction (thank you Alex!). An excited smile spread across Ben’s face as he exclaimed, “my research granddaughter!” His smile then took on a slightly mischievous glint as he immediately asked for embarrassing stories about Rich. As we said goodbye, Ben told me he was looking forward to visiting my research posters at future conferences. It was a short interaction, but one that meant the world to me. It means even more to me now, as I only met him one more time before his passing last month.
Ben the Scientist
Science was the one true love of Ben’s life. From the time he was a child–playing with chemistry sets, perusing the Edmund scientific catalog, once grinding a mirror in an attempt to make his own telescope—Ben was driven by a limitless curiosity and an infatuation with problem solving. Nothing made him happier. “To me, doing science when I was a little kid just sort of seemed like a type of play, and it still feels that way now,” he said as a young professor, musing that he is still often surprised that he gets paid to have so much fun.
While having fun, Ben managed to break open an entire subfield of neuroscience: glial biology. Neuroscientists had long focused on neurons, not giving much attention to the other cells surrounding those neurons, collectively referred to as “glia” (which literally means “glue”). Thanks in very large part to Ben and those who have come out of his lab, we now know that glia are absolutely essential for the proper development and maintenance of neural circuits and play crucial roles in both neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases.
Ben was always incredibly productive, publishing a whopping six first-author primary research articles during graduate school, five of them in Neuron, a well-regarded journal in the field. And in his later years as an established professor, Ben and his lab continually produced groundbreaking work—on astrocytes in development and disease, pericytes and the blood-brain barrier, and synapse elimination via the complement cascade. He quickly gained widespread recognition in the neuroscience community, but Ben wasn’t after the fame. He was a scientist because there was truly nothing he enjoyed more. “Once I get in the lab, I can’t leave, I just get so excited. It’s an addiction. I will always choose doing experiments over sleeping,” he admitted. Rich corroborates, “I’m not sure Ben ever slept. You would often wake up and see emails in your inbox from Ben at completely random hours in the middle of the night sharing thoughts and ideas on projects. And if you sent him new transcriptomics data, forget about it. You would wake up with an inbox completely overflowing with amazing insights, wacky ideas, and lots and lots of work to do.”
And you can tell in an interview conducted early last year that Ben was genuinely moved by the pure joy of asking and answering scientific questions. “What is more beautiful than discovering something that has never been known before?” he asks softly, with a light in his eye and a slight but insuppressible smile. A man in love if I have ever seen one.
Ben the Mentor
Not all great scientists are great mentors, but Ben was both. He instilled in each of his trainees that asking key questions was at the core of both great science and effective science communication. This is not a new concept, of course, but an important one, and one rarely explicitly taught. The Barres lab was an exception. Ben was so devoted to this idea that he had been known to threaten to get up and walk out of lab meeting if each slide didn’t have a question on it. With his adamancy, Ben ensured that those who left his lab–going on to postdocs or assistant professor positions–were better thinkers, communicators, and mentors themselves. Not only was Ben an effective and thoughtful mentor, but he also truly took joy in that role. Acknowledging the pleasure of scientific discovery, “that moment when you know something amazing that no one else in the world knows,” he then said, “But there is no moment more mind blowing to me than when one of my students makes the leap to thinking like a real scientist.” Given how deeply Ben loved science, it speaks volumes about him as a mentor that he placed the rewards of scientific training above even those of scientific discovery.
His mentorship extended far beyond those in his lab. I knew that Ben was an incredible man, but it is still astounding to me to see so many testimonials from everyone whom Ben helped throughout the years. His generosity knew no bounds. “Anyone at any stage in their career could go to Ben with a genuine need (be it scientific, career, financial, or personal), and Ben would do everything in his power to help. It was truly awe-inspiring to witness,” says Kevin Guttenplan, a graduate student currently working in the Barres lab. Kevin remembers years ago when Ben spent a full 30 minutes with him—then an unknown college student—at the Society for Neuroscience conference, a meeting with more than 30,000 attendees, to advise Kevin on where to go to graduate school.
And his story is just one among hundreds like it. Ben was never too busy to talk to a student or trainee or friend, and somehow still always responded freakishly promptly to emails, often leading to long back-and-forths. It was not rare for me to walk into Rich’s office and catch a glimpse of his inbox full of about ten emails from Ben from within a few hours. Personally, I am convinced that the Ministry of Magic must have given Ben a time-turner like Hermione’s. (A reference for Ben and for those who similarly loved Harry Potter.)
His generosity was not only personal, but also scientific. He occasionally used his own grant money to help junior faculty buy lab equipment. He published a long and detailed article with advice for graduate students on the important step of choosing a mentor. Perhaps most famously, he recently called on other professors to allow postdocs to take their projects with them when they leave to start their own labs. This was a controversial cause to champion, so much so that in the article’s introduction Ben says half-jokingly that he only feels comfortable writing it now that he is at the end of a long academic career and dying of cancer. Many professors feel territorial about the projects that take shape in their labs, and perhaps rightly so. However, Ben argues that newly independent scientists are at a huge disadvantage in both obtaining a faculty position and securing grants without being able to build off the preliminary data of a postdoctoral fellowship. He sees professors changing their policies in this regard as essential for the advancement of their trainees’ careers, and nothing mattered more to him than that. “As a PI myself, I will admit that this approach sometimes seems painful,” he wrote. “[…] But with mentorship, there is a time when you must make the welfare of your trainee the highest priority. As with good parenting, I believe that one should give to one’s trainees until it hurts to do so.”
Ben’s trainees were indeed like children to him. He cared not only about the advancement of their careers but also their fulfilment as people, and he did anything in his power to advocate on their behalf. They, in turn, loved him as a father figure–occasionally arguing with him or poking fun at him, but always harboring infinite care and respect for him. While I will never get to know Ben personally, I feel truly honored to be a part of the Barres “family tree”.
Ben the Advocate
Although I did not meet Ben until 2015, I first saw him give a talk at Columbia three years earlier. Not as well-versed in neuroscience literature as I probably should have been, I did not know who Ben was, but I was soon entranced by his talk on astrocytes. And then, right in the middle of his presentation, he switched from a data slide to a slide about fighting gender bias in science. Having been lucky to have had multiple female professors as role models during my undergraduate years, I had never given much thought to the reasons for the drop-off in the number of women in science as one moved up the career ladder. Retrospectively, though, even at that early point in my career I had already been on the receiving end of both words and actions that could have easily dissuaded me from continuing in science. Ben, I’m sure, would have understood.
Ben came from a unique position of having experienced life in academia as both a woman and a man. Born Barbara Barres, Ben always had felt uncomfortable in his body until he transitioned to male at age 43, by then already a professor at Stanford University. But standing in front of a packed auditorium at Columbia, Ben did not just complain about gender bias. He outlined a clear, evidence-based hypothesis for academia’s gender ratio problems, and went on to list definitive steps that institutions, funding agencies, and individuals could take to ameliorate the problem. And then he promptly went back to presenting his data. I did not realize it at the time, but that lecture was not an exceptional moment. Ben stopped in the middle of nearly every science talk he gave, which is extraordinary given his prominence in neuroscience. In earlier years he would talk about gender bias, and in later years he talked about sexual harassment in academia, as he did when he gave the keynote address at the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program retreat in 2015. Whatever the particular cause, he was a ruthless advocate for women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community.
Ben did not just speak out, he acted. Constantly. He famously rebutted Harvard president Larry Summers’ claims that women often fail to advance in science because of innate inferiority. He helped convince the NIH to change the nomination procedure and the gender ratio of their selection panel for the incredibly prestigious and lucrative Pioneer Award (the original 64-person committee consisted of 60 men). These changes made a clear difference in the number of women who received the award–from literally zero to over 50% the following year. He expressed outrage that Stanford was building a new football stadium yet apparently could not provide financial support for child care for their female assistant professors. Stanford responded, becoming the first university in the country to provide an annual salary support benefit of $20,000 to male and female assistant professors with young children. He would regularly demand that meeting organizers invite more women to speak at conferences. He even once angrily emailed my advisor when he saw that Rich was speaking at a meeting that had mostly male participants. (Rich had not even seen the list of other speakers yet, and a female postdoc in the lab spoke in his place.) I am sure Ben annoyed the hell out of countless people at various institutions and meetings all across the country. However, in doing so, Ben enacted tangible change again and again. I strongly believe that academia is a friendlier place for women and minorities because of Ben, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
Ben the Luminary
Ben was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after a heart attack in March of 2016. Of course, the next day he was hard at work making plans so that each of his current trainees would be taken care of after his death. During the following 20 months, Ben stopped traveling almost entirely, focusing his remaining energy on his lab. In true Ben fashion, he was exceedingly open about his mortality, at times almost cringingly so, joking about it at lab meetings… but then Ben was always brutally honest about everything and everyone.
In early November of last year, Ben’s condition worsened and he was moved to hospice care. He spent his last weeks writing and updating recommendation letters for each of his trainees. He did also make it to the movie theater to see The Last Jedi, which he loved.
In a comment on one of the many tributes to Ben published since his death, UCSD professor Mark Tuszynski writes, “Ben’s light was not so much extinguished as distributed among dozens, hundreds, or thousands of others. We will continue to see him in his trainees, colleagues, and those who gained the courage to speak out for what was right and true.” While I didn’t know Ben well, his scientific curiosity and rigor, unceasing advocacy, and unparalleled generosity have left an indelible impression on me, and will continue to do so through the Ben stories and training practices of my own advisor. I hope to live up to Ben’s wonderfully, outrageously high standards for science and mentorship, keeping his light alive. And while Ben will not be able to visit my conference posters in the coming years, the posters will always, always start with a question.
For some of Ben’s infinite wisdom…
Ben on sexism in science:
Ben on picking a graduate advisor
Ben on allowing postdocs to retain projects: