We can choose to be better; can scientists afford not to?

A few months ago, I joined a remote session of a diversity, equity, and inclusion book club for scientists, where we read and discussed Ben Barres’ book “Autobiography of a transgender scientist”(1). This was a fantastic read. I’m partly writing about it now in the hope that you will read it (you can listen to it on audiobook for free from your local library). Ben came out as transgender well into his career as a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. Having been perceived as both a man and a woman, he was uniquely sensitive to gender discrimination in science. He found that he was given more credibility once he was able to pass as a man. One colleague even remarked that he was a much better scientist than his “sister” (mistaking his pre-transition appearance and deadname for a sibling).

I didn’t know Ben Barres personally but reading his story and how deeply he affected others affected me. As he wrote in Neuron (2), Ben felt that the ultimate prize in science lies in the enjoyment of the scientific process and so he dedicated himself to fostering that pleasure in his mentees. He also focused heavily on promoting their careers (3). I get the feeling that his career was successful because of his willingness to advocate for others. Instead of taking his new-found male privilege and using it only to further his career, Ben turned his privilege into a lifetime of advocacy for women and minorities in science. There are plenty of anecdotes about him refusing to accept speaking invitations from departments with few female professors or to partake in panels without representation from people of color. It seems that many of these actions and stances could have been risky for his career at the time. Of particular note, his refutation of the remarks of a former Harvard president that women don’t advance in science because of an innate difference in ability from men was published in Nature (4) and widely read. Not only was his visibility as a transgender man in academia transformative, but he made the choice to be an advocate. He also managed to have an incredible scientific career, fundamentally changing our view of the role of glia in brain function and development.

In the month of Pride and the worldwide protests against racial bias triggered by the death of George Floyd, we should all be thinking about how we can redistribute power and how we can examine our own biases. This month saw wild swings in the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. First was a removal of discrimination protections in healthcare for transgender people in the United States. This was a disheartening blow to the transgender community for whom healthcare was already fraught with accessibility issues. But this was rapidly followed by a joyous, landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, which affirmed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin) does indeed apply to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, finally allowing this community to benefit from this long-standing legislation. This ruling was the result of “decades of work on the street,” according to the transgender activist and staff attorney at the ACLU, Chase Strangio. Ultimately, the Civil Rights Act lives and is actualized by everyday people like us. It is enacted not only by frontline activists, but by all of us who have the daily choice to either perpetuate or combat discrimination in our workplaces.

One of the defining features of privilege is how difficult it is to recognize in yourself. Privilege means thinking we can rest after the legalization of gay marriage without thinking about the high Black trans mortality rate. Privilege means not calling out another colleague for being discriminatory, for having the option to choose your career over confrontation when you are not affected directly. Although I’m at the beginning of my career, I already know that the culture of science is one of scarcity and it can easily feel as if you are in a position where you can’t afford to give anything away. But in the spirit of Ben we should recognize that we can all afford to challenge ourselves and each other to be better, to uplift others when we could only promote ourselves. We all have the power to dismantle systems of oppression. Let’s get to it.

Bibliography

  1. Barres B, Hopkins N. The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist (The MIT Press). The MIT Press; 2018.
  2. Barres BA. How to pick a graduate advisor. Neuron. 2013 Oct 16;80(2):275–279.
  3. Allen NJ, Daneman R. In memoriam: Ben Barres. J Cell Biol. 2018 Feb 5;217(2):435–438.
  4. Barres BA. Does gender matter? Nature. 2006 Jul 13;442(7099):133–136.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:


Kristen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology, College of Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, who is interested in the regulation of F-actin assembly. You can say “Hi” on Twitter @kskruber1. If you’re interested in joining the book club mentioned in the article, you can message organizer Roberto Efrain Diaz @robbiediaz_ucsf