Bianca Jones Marlin Traces How Sensory Inputs Shape the Brain
Bianca Jones Marlin Traces How Sensory Inputs Shape the Brain

Bianca Jones Marlin Traces How Sensory Inputs Shape the Brain

The Columbia University neuroscientist researches the biology behind some of our most human experiences, including building family relationships. 

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Annie Melchor

Stephanie "Annie"  Melchor got her PhD from the University of Virginia in 2020, studying how the immune response to the parasite Toxoplasma gondii leads to muscle wasting and tissue scarring...

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Oct 1, 2021

ABOVE: THE MARLIN LAB, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Bianca Jones Marlin grew up in a home bustling with foster siblings on Long Island near New York City. From a young age, she knew she loved biology, and her family relationships with children placed in foster care made her question how environmental triggers such as stress and trauma can influence brain development. She also enjoyed teaching and the performing arts, and thought the best way to combine her interests was to be a science teacher.  

After high school, Marlin stayed in New York and attended St. John’s University, where she started studying education. One day, she noticed a flyer advertising a program to help students pay for their college tuition and prepare for PhDs by providing paid research assistantships. At the time, she says she didn’t even know what a PhD was and had never considered a career in research. But her interest was piqued, so she enrolled. “I learned that I could take my love for science, and my love for teaching, and combine that,” she says. “It’s all in this beautiful little package that is the PhD.” She ended up adding a biology major to her adolescent education studies—juggling fungal genetics research along with teaching middle and high school students on the Lower East Side—and entered a graduate program at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in 2009. 

Marlin had gotten her first taste of neuroscience during summer research stints at Vanderbilt University and MIT, but it wasn’t until her final lab rotation in Robert Froemke’s group that she knew what she wanted to work on for her thesis. Froemke studied oxytocin—the “love hormone”—and Marlin focused in on its roles in social and parental behavior. “It was just a match made in heaven,” she says.

The pair were interested in what controls maternal behavior in mice. A mouse that has recently given birth takes care of pups, even if they aren’t her own. By contrast, female mice who have never given birth (called virgins) not only neglect pups, but sometimes eat them. Marlin found that giving oxytocin to the virgin mice changed their child-rearing behavior, and even more importantly, she discovered how: a maternal brain, flooded with oxytocin, interprets the sound of a pup crying differently from how a virgin mouse does. In her paper, published in Nature (520:499–504, 2015), she showed that oxytocin alone was sufficient to rewire the hearing centers in the brains of virgin mice to resemble those of mother mice. 

“Bianca was amazing,” says Froemke, noting that her work shaped the direction of the lab’s current research, and that he continues to collaborate with Marlin, who now runs her own lab at Columbia University. He adds that Marlin’s work helped ground oxytocin research in serious science, building a solid foundation with her “willpower, gumption, drive and ambition, her technical expertise, . . . as well as her charisma, her leadership, how well she gets along with everybody, how inspiring she is.”

After graduating in 2016, Marlin started her postdoc in Nobel laureate Richard Axel’s lab at Columbia. There, she continued her research on how sensory stimuli rewire the mouse brain, now studying smell instead of sound. In as-yet unpublished work, she found that when the smell of almonds was paired with a traumatic event such as a shock, mice began to produce more of the olfactory neurons that respond to the odor of almonds, increasing their sensitivity to the smell. And mice that had experienced this almond-related trauma passed their learned fear down to their offspring via epigenetics. 

Marlin says she wonders how her findings will translate to humans. “We as a human people know that there’s something about our ancestors living on in us—the memories of our past living on in us,” she says, but to what extent this is a cultural phenomenon versus something governed by epigenetics remains to be seen. 

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When Marlin launched her own lab in January of 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 “the heart and the passion to find answers in science that are important to them.” Any difficulties she’s faced have been buffered by her team, she says, and the first few months have “been nothing short of glorious.” 

Correction (October 4): A previous version of this article stated that Marlin had opened her lab at Columbia in January 2020, instead of in January 2021. The Scientist regrets this error.