Intended for healthcare professionals


Ben Barres: neuroscientist and fighter for diversity

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 24 January 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k291
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. Washington, DC
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Credit: Stanford University

Achieving excellence in a single aspect of life is difficult, doing so in two is phenomenal. Ben Barres was a phenomenon; the “godfather” who largely created the modern neurobiology specialism of glial research, and who was equally prominent for championing equality for minorities, particularly women, in the sciences.

Barres’s unique journey began as one of fraternal twin girls in postwar middle class suburban New Jersey. She was named Barbara and grew up a tomboy who took an early interest in science and decided in eighth grade that she would go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT was a nearly all male place in those days. Barres was given early acceptance and a scholarship, but not an easy road towards graduation in 1976. “I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me,” Barres would later write.

Glial studies

Medical school at Dartmouth led to a residency in clinical neurology at Cornell, where the fascination with glia took hold. Barres felt the need for further study and turned to Harvard for a PhD in …

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