Black History Month: Spotlight on Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD

February 5, 2021

Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, one of the newest faculty members at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, opened her own lab as an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience just this past January at the Zuckerman Institute.

Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, photo by John Abbott for Columbia's Zuckerman Institute
Bianca Jones Marlin. Photo by John Abbott.

Since beginning as a postdoc with Richard Axel, MD, in 2016, Marlin has been working to answer one of biology’s most perplexing questions: How does stress or trauma get passed down to children and even grandchildren?

The Marlin Lab is using a mouse model to uncover the biological mechanisms. Stress experienced by a male mouse, for example, can change his offspring’s behavior and brains, even when the male has no contact with his offspring after birth.

“The question is, are the offspring learning stress behaviors from their parents, or is there something more?” Marlin says. “We’re looking to really dig that apart.”

The DNA in the genes inherited by the offspring remains unchanged, but other molecules that control the activity of the genes—whether the genes are turned off or on—may be passed down through generations.

“We have a lot of work to do to find these molecules and understand the mechanism,” she says. 

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Marlin’s interest in neuroscience and behavior was sparked by her training to become a high school teacher and by her family.

“My biological parents were also foster parents,” she says. “Growing up with siblings who have different parents and genetics piqued my interest in human behavior and human interaction.”

In graduate school at New York University, she studied maternal behavior in mice and how the brain changes after females give birth to prepare them to care for newborns. She discovered that a hormone called oxytocin, which increases in the mother after she gives birth, alters the mother’s brain in a way that makes her more nurturing. Based on that discovery, Marlin received the Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience from the Society for Neuroscience in 2016 and was named a STAT Wunderkind in 2017. 

“When we went to bed, I heard stories of where my siblings came from, what they had to go through to be put in foster care. There were stories of abuse, stories of not getting the proper care,” she told Science Friday

“It led me to wonder: What makes a bad or good parent? And can we do anything to help? I almost feel it’s my obligation to do something about it.”

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