cover image The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

Ben Barres. MIT Press, $21.95 (160p) ISBN 978-0-262-03911-6

Stanford neuroscientist Barres’s short, somewhat formal but sincere autobiography, written in the 21 months between his cancer diagnosis and his death in 2017, uses a tripartite structure to highlight each of the important streams of his life story. “Life” covers Barres’s childhood and details the frustrations of proving oneself as a bright woman in academic science in the 1970s through the ’90s while privately dealing with the gender dysphoria that would finally lead him to transition in his 40s. He soon discovered that the professional impact of being transgender was much less negative than that of being perceived as female. Barres’s summary of his laboratory’s methodology development and key research findings about glial cells in “Science,” though clear and concise, provides no technical background for the general reader. In “Advocacy,” Barres refers to his influential 2006 Nature article “Does Gender Matter?”, written in reaction to Harvard President Larry Summers’s public expressions of bias against women in STEM. He urges his male colleagues to believe both the research and the lived experiences of women in science about the persistence of gender bias. Barres is profoundly appreciative of both his academic mentors and his trainees, and his prose is matter-of-fact; his activist fire comes through in the very fond introduction by colleague Nancy Hopkins, in which she shares bits of his vitriolic letters to conferences that refused to invite women speakers or create anti-sexual harassment policies. This is a brief, intriguing snapshot of a life cut short. (Sept.)