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The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

Ben Barres
MIT Press
2018
160 pp.
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In 2007, Stanford University neuroscientist Ben Barres published an essay comparing the experiences of female and male scientists. What made this essay noteworthy was that he wrote from personal experience. Barres, an accomplished researcher, was assigned female at birth and transitioned to male in 1997 at the age of 43. He lived openly as a transgender scientist until his death at the age of 63 from pancreatic cancer.

In his new, posthumously published book, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, Barres breaks the account of his life into three sections: Life, Science, and Advocacy. His candor and love for science transform the ensuing story into a portrait of a singular personality that was shaped by his status as an outsider.

Barres grew up in a working-class family in New Jersey. He describes the dissonance of being raised as a girl, revealing the “continued emotional pain… that my gender discordance caused me.” But during this period, Barres also developed a passion for science. After attaining a bachelor’s degree from MIT, he went on to earn a medical degree and a doctorate in neurobiology from Dartmouth and Harvard, respectively.

Although Barres reports that these early years in his career were generally happy, he carefully catalogs the gender barriers and sexism he faced during this period. For example, upon solving a difficult math problem in a class at MIT, he recounts how the professor accused him of having had a boyfriend solve it. Such experiences informed his politics and drove him to champion the rights of female scientists.

Barres’s passion for science is a consistent theme in the book and does not seem to have been diminished by either the sexism he faced as a young academic or the transphobia he encountered later on. He routinely worked 16- to 20-hour days and once attempted a week-long vacation but left after 15 minutes on the beach, deciding he would rather be in the lab.

Barres devoted his scientific career to understanding the role of glial cells in the brain. This choice of subject is fitting: at the time he began his work, glial cells were also outsiders, widely perceived as unimportant. True to form, Barres persisted, and his findings played a big part in changing dogma. Today, glia are recognized as playing crucial roles in the wiring of the brain.

Some readers may find the science in this book inaccessible, which is unfortunate because it is a central element. A description of an experiment suggesting that “target innervation induced RGCs to down-regulate jagged1 mRNA,” for example, sounds more like language used in a review article than in a memoir and fails to convey the drama of discovery or the full importance of his work. But for such lapses, Barres, who began writing this autobiography after his cancer diagnosis, should be forgiven.

In the end, although he reveals much that is insightful and important, the reader is left with the feeling that Barres had so much more to say.

About the author

The reviewer is at Prevail Therapeutics, New York, NY 10011, USA.