Bianca Jones Marlin grew up in a home run by foster siblings on Long Island, near New York. From an early age she knew she loved biology, and her family relationships with foster children have left her wondering how environmental triggers such as stress and trauma can influence development. of the brain. She also loved teaching and the performing arts, and believed that the best way to combine her interests was to be a science teacher.
After high school, Marlin stayed in New York City and attended St. John’s University, where she began studying education. She once noticed a flyer promoting a program to help students pay their tuition and prepare for a doctorate by offering paid research assistant positions. At the time, she says she didn’t even know what a doctorate was and that she had never considered a career in research. But her interest was piqued, so she signed up. âI learned that I could combine my love for science and my love for teaching,â she says. âEverything is in this wonderful little package that is the doctorate. She ended up adding a major in biology to her education studies as a teenager – juggling fungal genetics research with teaching middle and high school students on the Lower East Side – and entered a degree program. graduated from NYU Grossman School of Medicine in 2009.
Marlin had had her first glimpse into neuroscience during summer research stays at Vanderbilt University and MIT, but it wasn’t until her last lab rotation in Robert Froemke’s group that she knew about what she wanted to work on for her thesis. Froemke has studied oxytocin – “the love hormone” – and Marlin has focused on its roles in social and parenting behavior. “It was just a match made in heaven,” she said.
The couple took an interest in what controls maternal behavior in mice. A mouse that has just given birth takes care of the little ones, even if they are not her own. In contrast, female mice that have never given birth (called virgins) not only neglect the young, but sometimes eat them. Marlin discovered that giving oxytocin to virgin mice altered their child-rearing behavior, and more importantly, she discovered how: a maternal brain, flooded with oxytocin, interprets the sound of a crying puppy differently the way a blank mouse does. In his article, published in Nature (520: 499-504, 2015), she showed that oxytocin alone was sufficient to rewire the auditory centers in the brains of virgin mice to resemble those of mother mice.
âBianca was amazing,â says Froemke, noting that her work has shaped the direction of the lab’s current research and that he continues to collaborate with Marlin, who now runs his own lab at Columbia University. He adds that Marlin’s work has helped anchor oxytocin research into serious science, building a solid foundation with his “will, common sense, drive and ambition, technical expertise,.” . . as well as her charisma, her leadership, how well she gets along with everyone, how inspiring she is.
After graduating in 2016, Marlin began his post-doctoral research in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Richard Axel at Columbia. There, she continued her research into how sensory stimuli rewire the mouse brain, now studying smell instead of sound. In unpublished work, she found that when the smell of almonds was associated with a traumatic event such as shock, mice began to produce more olfactory neurons that reacted to the smell of almonds, thereby increasing their sensitivity to odor. And the mice that had experienced this almond-related trauma passed on their learned fear to their offspring through epigenetics.
Marlin says she wonders how her findings will translate to humans. âAs humans, we know that there is something about our ancestors that live in us – memories of our past live in us,â she says, but to what extent it is ‘a cultural phenomenon in relation to something governed by epigenetics remains to be seen.
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When Marlin launched her own lab in January this year, she expected major challenges, both as a black woman in academia and because of the pandemic. Fortunately, she says, “I work with the most amazing people,” who “have a heart and a passion to find scientific answers that are important to them.” Any difficulties she faced were eased by her team, she said, and the first few months were “just glorious.”
Correction (October 4): A previous version of this article stated that Marlin opened his lab in Columbia in January 2020, instead of January 2021. The scientist regret this error.