It was the day of my defense, and as I prepared to give the biggest talk of my life thus far, I looked out into the audience, and saw Ben Barres walk into the room. Normally, this would have been a totally unremarkable event. Ben was one of the members on my committee. Except these circumstances were not normal. Ben was diagnosed with terminal cancer just over a year earlier. At that point, I told Ben that while I’d totally love to have his support and advice on my committee of course I’d understand if he wanted to withdraw to focus on more important things. But he refused – even while undergoing chemotherapy, he wanted to remain on the committee to provide advice and support, and so he continued to come to committee meetings.
For my defense, Ben requested that I find an alternate in case the chemo made it too hard for him to attend, and another professor, Liqun, generously agreed to be on call, but when the day came, somehow Ben found the strength to be there, as he did countless other times for so many other people, despite having every reason to sit one out and focus on himself. Can you imagine having a career, and a daily life, that, when you are given months to live, the only thing you can think of is how to keep living your ‘routine’ daily life? Only someone so deeply passionate and committed to the life they’d built for themselves, when faced with such circumstances, would choose to continue doing exactly what they were doing before, and dive even more deeply into daily life.
Ben Barres was one of the people who had the greatest impact on me during my years in graduate school. He not only affected who I am as a scientist. He was also a wonderful role model of great character. I met Ben my first year of graduate school, when I was looking for labs to rotate in and potentially join as a graduate student. In that meeting, Ben generously donated lots of time to the discussion and made great suggestions of potential mentors based on the science I was interested in at the time. After my first professor left for industry, I met with Ben again as I was searching for a new lab to join – ultimately choosing Kang. Again, Ben spent lots of time thinking with me about what lab would be the best fit.
But what I most remember during these meetings were two meta-pieces of advice he gave. 1. Ben was adamant that one of the most important criteria for choosing a lab as a graduate student is how much the professor is invested in mentoring. Ben told me how much he himself benefitted from being mentored by professors who were both brilliant scientists and incredibly generous, caring people as well. And from everything that I’ve heard from Ben’s lab members – he certainly continued the tradition of mentorship he had received. 2. Ben told me that “going to lab should feel like going to summer camp.” He told me the only way to do great science is to love being in lab. When I was a kid, I went to camp, and loved it. It was the perfect metaphor to inspire me. I tried to keep this in mind in choosing a lab as well. Both of these pieces of advice he gave made their way into an opinion piece he wrote around that time, titled, “How to pick a graduate advisor”, published in Neuron in 2013.
During the beginning of graduate school, I struggled quite a bit, and at times found myself doubting whether I wanted to continue. Ben sensed this, and challenged me to re-think my decision to be a scientist. He did this out of nothing more than a desire to see another human being thrive in their work and career, like he felt he was blessed to. How do I know this was his motive? After making this declaration that he felt maybe I should try something else, he spent the next hour and half with me grilling me to find out what my passions were, and describing all the abilities he saw in me, and how I might feel the same thrill in my career that he felt in his. Obviously, writing this publicly is something some might view as unwise, but in an attempt to live up to Ben’s example of courage and honesty, I would like to put it out there anyway. After I resolved to continue, Ben was a continual source of optimism and encouragement: Ben’s lab was right next to my first mentor’s lab, and I would often bump into Ben in the halls on my way home. He always asked how I was doing, and had such genuine happiness when things were going well. If an experiment had failed to generate meaningful data or if it was a down day, Ben would always have something encouraging to say. I remember he often said, “ah don’t worry, most graduate students don't get good data until their third or fourth year anyway. Keep going!”
And of course, one of the attributes about Ben I most admire was the courage and grace he displayed in his decision to live as a transgender man. There are some people who master compassion and empathy, but their attunement to the emotions of others prevents them from taking bold, courageous steps. Others can be bold and unafraid, but are often inattentive to the struggles of others. It is a rare person who combines empathy and caring with a courageous fearlessness that makes them a great fighter for justice. Ben had this rare combination of personality traits that made him simultaneously so likeable, and such a profound influence on everyone’s sense of justice. Much has been written about Ben in this respect – his openness in describing his own experience transitioning, his support for the LGBT community (something which is especially important to me), his calling out gender and minority bias in career advancement in science.
However, sometimes the most profound social change comes from a member of a marginalized group simply setting an example by their excellence and grace in their chosen niche in society. On my thesis committee, Ben always had great scientific advice on my project. He thought about my project from entirely new angles. And witnessing him in seminars, he absorbed scientifically complex talks with ease, and asked great questions. He was an incredibly hard worker, and somehow always responded to e-mails nearly instantaneously – all the more remarkable given how busy he was. And at the end of the day, he could almost always be found with a smile on his face. He will be sorely missed.