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Ben Barres Dies

Stanford University School of Medicine professor of neurobiology Ben Barres has died of advanced pancreatic cancer, reports Nature News. He was 63 years old.

Barres was best known for his research on the role of glial cells in brain development and disease, and made several discoveries, including the identification of glial-derived factors that promote the formation and elimination of synapses, and the characterization of signals that induce the formation of myelin, the lipid sheathing on neurons, Nature News says.

He was also known as a passionate advocate for gender equality in science, as well as for calling for mentors to be held accountable for the fair treatment and training of their grad students and postdocs. In an August 2017 column in Nature News, he called out the practice of postdocs being forced to leave their research behind when leaving their PIs' labs to start their own labs. "This is such a touchy topic that it is only now that I feel comfortable writing about it," Barres wrote at the time. "I am at the end of a long academic career and dying of stage four pancreatic cancer. I think it's time for the academic community to start openly discussing the issue of research freedom for postdocs (or lack of it)."

Barres got his medical degree at Dartmouth College in 1979, and then completed a neurology residency at Weill Cornell Medicine. He then left medicine to pursue a doctorate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School on the function and distribution of cation channels in glial cells, according to Nature News. During a postdoc at University College London, Barres discovered that developing neurons provide signals to oligodendrocytes to insulate neuronal axons. 

He started his own lab in 1993 at Stanford, where he focused on the roles of astrocytes and microglia in synapse elimination, among many other things. "Barres also made significant contributions to the study of signals that influence the survival of damaged neurons, optic-nerve and spinal-cord regeneration, and the assembly and maintenance of the barrier that prevents specific molecules in the blood entering the brain," Nature News says.

Barres was born a woman, Barbara, and transitioned in 1997. In 2013, he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences as the first openly transgender member.

According to Nature News, Barres said of his life, "I lived life on my terms: I wanted to switch genders, and I did. I wanted to be a scientist, and I was. I wanted to study glia, and I did that too. I stood up for what I believed in and I like to think I made an impact, or at least opened the door for the impact to occur. I have zero regrets and I'm ready to die. I've truly had a great life."