Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, by Ben Barres (author), Nancy Hopkins (Foreword), Paul Boehmer (narrator)

Highbridge Audio, ISBN 9781684416776, September 2018

Ben Barres was a groundbreaking scientist in neurobiology, and groundbreaking as a transgender person in science. This is his autobiography, completed shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2017.

Barbara Barres, even as a very young child, had both a strong interest in science, and a strong sense of gender confusion and belief that she was assigned the wrong gender at birth. She was, she was sure, meant to be a boy. Unfortunately, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no one and nothing to tell Barbara that yes, she really could be Ben. 

She pursued mathematics and science, eventually getting a degree in biology from MIT, an MD from Dartmouth Medical School, and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard Medical School, pursing research in neurobiology rather than a career in medicine. Along the way, there were incidents where she was treated unfairly, such as when a mathematics professor told her she couldn't have solved that equation; her boyfriend must have. Yet she was slow to recognize this as perhaps being sexism rather than merely unfairness to her as an individual. Meanwhile, her gender confusion continued to trouble--and eventually, she learned she wasn't alone. Gender confusion was real, and transition was possible.

In this book, Ben Barres gives us both a fascinating account of his scientific research, and of his, or "her," struggles to get good mentorship and opportunities as a woman in science, his discovery that gender dysphoria is real and transition was possible, and finally his transition from Barbara to Ben. Despite his initial and quite reasonable fears, his colleagues, friends, and family supported him. His successful career continued, and he continued doing critical work until very near the end. That work included not just his own groundbreaking research on glial cells, but mentoring promising young scientists, especially women. Having transitioned, he had discovered, as few men can, how differently Ben was treated than Barbara was. This became a major concern of his, and he not only mentored women in his own lab, but worked to get the major institutions that provide funding so many young scientists depend on to examine and update their procedures to include qualified women, not just qualified men.

It's a fascinating and enjoyable account of a life in science.

I bought this audiobook.

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