WEST ORANGE, NJ — Ben Barres, a neuroscientist and West Orange native who taught at Stanford University, died at age 63 on Dec. 27 — 20 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Barres led the charge in researching glial cells, which are nerve cells in the brain, and was a strong advocate of women in science fields. Barres, who was transgender, was outspoken about the differences in how other scientists treated him when they saw him as a woman versus as a man, according to Stanford science writer Bruce Goldman in a university story about Barres’ death.
Born in 1954, Barres graduated from West Orange High School and went on to receive a degree in life science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976 and a medical degree from Dartmouth in 1979. After a medical residency at Cornell University, Barres earned his doctorate in neurobiology from Harvard University.
Barres’ work researching brain cells focused on the nine of every 10 that are not nerves, which are called “glia.” According to Goldman’s article, Barres and the scientists in his lab discovered that the cells provide more than just stability to nerves, as had been previously thought.
“Glial cells, they proved, are critical to sustaining the overall architecture of the brain’s constellation of synapses, through which neurons pass signals to one another,” Goldman wrote. “Recent evidence from Barres’ lab indicates that glia gone wrong may be to blame for many of the neurodegenerative disorders that vex humanity.”
Barres’ research was spurred by his time at Cornell during his medical residency. He was frustrated by doctors’ inability to understand and cure brain degeneration, which led him to study at Harvard. When he graduated in 1990, he worked on a postdoctoral fellowship at University College London, then took a job as an assistant professor at Stanford in 1993.
Barres climbed the ranks of the neurobiology department at Stanford, where he was named the department’s chairman in 2008. In 2005 he created and became the director of the university’s Masters of Science in Medicine Degree Program for Ph.D. students.
“At Stanford, Barres turned his attention to a second class of glial cells known as astrocytes. These are the most common cells in the human brain, outnumbering neurons by a factor of four or so. Before Barres began focusing on them, nobody really had understood what astrocytes do for a living,” Goldman wrote. Barres discovered that the cells are important to the brain’s physical formation.
According to Goldman, Barres’ goal was to find the causes of the brain degeneration found in Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. To further this goal, in 2011 Barres co-founded Annexon Biosciences, a biotechnology company that worked to create drugs to fight brain degeneration.
Barres was also a fierce champion of women in the sciences, having been able to empathize with the struggles they face due to his own struggles as a transgender man.
“People are still arguing over whether there are cognitive differences between men and women. If they exist, it’s not clear they are innate, and if they are innate, it’s not clear they are relevant. They are subtle, and they may even benefit women,” Barres said in a 2006 interview with the New York Times. “But when you tell people about the studies documenting bias, if they are prejudiced, they just discount the evidence.”
In the interview Barres described some of the discrimination he faced before his transition — discrimination that began when he was in high school.
“I was a very good math and science student, maybe the best in my high school. And despite all that, when it came time to talk to my guidance counselor, he did not encourage me,” he said. “But I said, I want to go to MIT; I don’t want to go anywhere else. So I just ignored him. Fortunately, my parents did not try to dissuade me.”
The effect that Barres had on his students and the Stanford community was evident, as described in Goldman’s article. His top priority toward the end of his life was finishing the letters of recommendation he had promised to his students. Academia was a big part of his life from the time he was young, according to Barres’ twin sister, Jeanne Gibian.
“He was a brilliant student, he really gravitated toward science and math,” she told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview on Jan. 6. “He spent a lot of time on Saturdays at the library, and he spent a summer at Phillips Academy one year. He was a professional student for so many years.”
Though Barres was an academic and a scientist, Gibian stressed that he also had other hobbies — he was a musician, along with Gibian, their brother and younger sister. A viola player, Barres continued making music throughout his time in college.
“We all went to music camp in Montclair,” Gibian said, adding that they also spent a lot of time at the West Orange Community House growing up. “He was all-state in Jersey and he played in the symphony at MIT. A lot of people didn’t even know that.
“We loved Ben to death, you just gravitate toward people who are like that,” Gibian said.