December 27, 2017

In memory of Ben Barres, a personal tribute

As we mourn today the loss of our colleague and dear friend Ben Barres, I thought it would be fitting to share a piece that I wrote in tribute to Ben almost a year ago. I was honored to deliver it as an introduction to a symposium held in Ben’s honor on January 12, 2017.

It is my great pleasure and honor to welcome you today to celebrate our friend and colleague, Ben Barres. Thank you all so much for being here. The stellar line up of speakers who traveled here for today’s symposium, and the sheer number of people in the audience, are testaments to Ben’s stature and accomplishments, and how much admiration and affection he inspires in all of us. Although I don’t want to delay the proceedings, I do want to spend just a few minutes talking about Ben as friend, scientist, leader and inspiration.

Born and raised in West, Orange, New Jersey, Ben earned his Bachelor of Science at M.I.T, his MD at Dartmouth College, his neurology residency training at Weill Cornell Medical College, and his PhD at Harvard Medical School with David Corey, who is here today.

I first met Ben in 1988 when I was a postdoc and he was finishing his graduate studies. I had just given a short talk at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting and he was in the audience, and he approached me to invite me to give a seminar on the work in his department. Looking back, some might consider it a bit unorthodox that a graduate student was inviting a random postdoc to give a seminar, but there was something about Ben’s enthusiastic and straightforward manner that made it seem entirely natural and I didn’t think twice about it. I accepted, and visited, and that was the beginning of a deep friendship that has lasted almost three decades now.

Our friendship was based initially on personal affinity and common scientific outlook, and grew further as Ben decided to join Martin Raff as a postdoc, since I had done a short postdoc in Martin’s group. Ben and I shared a common admiration for Martin and spent many hours dissecting what made Martin such a great mentor, seeking lessons to apply to our own labs, which we hoped one day to have.

Our friendship grew further because of my admiration for Ben as a scientist. As a graduate student Ben had already taken a bold and contrarian stance on glial cells, unconvinced by the view that such a prominent cell type would be just some kind of brain packing material, and interested in understanding their deeper functions in physiology, development, and regeneration. Pursuing this approach required real courage, a point I will come back to.

Already evident in his work with David, Ben’s scientific approach of dissecting phenomena systematically flourished further under Martin, as he developed methods to purify specific cell types so that he could understand rigorously the contribution of individual cells on the one hand, and of their interactions on the other, to various cellular and networks properties.

Dialing forward, I believe it is the marriage of this rigor with Ben’s open mind and boundless curiosity, and with his gifts as a mentor, that are the source of his huge impact in so many fields, as he has illuminated glial control of synapse development, pruning and function; myelination, the blood brain barrier, and gliosis, as well as retinal development and regeneration. We’re all excited to hear today from Ben’s trainees and colleagues the many discoveries that have flowed from Ben’s fertile imagination.

At Stanford Ben again drew on the fonts of courage that had been evident in his scientific career, but now applying them to his own personal life as he decided to transition from female to male, from Barbara to Ben. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be Ben’s friends at the time were privileged that he shared his experiences with us. For me, the admiration and affection I had for Ben grew into awe as I witnessed the courage and grace with which he undertook his transition.

And his courage has continued to shine through further as he has taken advantage of his unique vantage point to tackle sexism in science and in society more broadly, and to advocate for the LGBT community, which we will also hear about today. He is an extraordinary spokesperson and role model.

A year ago I was thrilled to find that I was returning to Stanford, and one of the great joys was to reconnect with Ben. Then in April we heard the extremely tough news that Ben had been diagnosed with cancer; by chance I happened to be in the Bay Area and with Ben during those days. When faced with this adversity, Ben’s undaunted spirit again prevailed, and he has been combating his cancer with the same grace and determination with which he has tackled all challenges in his life.

It will come as no surprise to you that, when I was preparing my Inaugural speech this October (2016), and wanted to exhort our community here at Stanford to face life challenges with optimism and courage, I could think of no person who exemplified this more than Ben. And so I’d like to close by reading what I said to the thousands of Stanford students, faculty, staff and alumni who were present or watching it stream live online.

Here is what I said: “ Another person who has inspired me for his courage is our colleague Ben Barres, until recently chair of the Department of Neurobiology in the School of Medicine. Ben and I have been close friends for almost three decades. Ben has broken many barriers in his life, and he is one of the most courageous people I know. Today he is demonstrating personal courage as he combats a life-threatening cancer, with characteristic determination and grace.

But he has always been courageous, at every stage of his academic and personal life. He challenged scientific dogma, successfully arguing, in the face of intense skepticism, for the importance of a frequently overlooked type of brain cell. He was also the first openly transgender scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and he has written from his perspective about gender discrimination in science and been a tremendous advocate for women.

That is the kind of courage we want to flourish here at Stanford. When we have the courage to challenge ideas, embrace our differences and learn from each other, our potential is truly unlimited. That is the power of diversity.”

Ben, you have been a friend and inspiration to me personally and to all of us. It is a great privilege to open this symposium that will celebrate your accomplishments and your impact on our lives and on the world. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your friendship, your courage, your deep contributions to science and to society, and your commitment to making the world a better place. You have enriched our lives forever, and we are forever grateful.