Updated on 2 January at 4:11 p.m. ET
Right until the end of his life last Wednesday, Ben Barres made it his business to champion the unsung.
While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.
In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain. That alone would have been enough to secure a spot in science’s hall of fame. But the outpouring of adulation that followed his passing, at the age of 63 from pancreatic cancer, was as much about his generosity of spirit as it was about his force of intellect.
Barres was a great scientist, yes, but also a scientist who made it possible for others to be great. He went out of his way to mentor young scientists. He actively stepped out of the way of his trainees so they could blaze their own trails without having to compete with him. And he spent the final days of his life writing and updating dozens of letters of recommendations for his trainees. “He was very sick, but he valiantly worked through these letters and completed every single one of them with utmost care,” says Cagla Eroglu from Duke University. “From the first day in his lab until his death, Ben always cared about my success as if it was his own.”