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Neuroscientist seeks love molecule: a conversation with Bianca Jones Marlin

The Columbia scientist on the neuroscience of motherhood and how social justice and science intersect


Screenshot via SciFri/YouTube

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The brain contains hundreds of chemicals that control everything from our mood to how we move. One of these, the love hormone oxytocin, captured Bianca Jones Marlin, a neuroscientist seeking to merge her love for the understanding behavior with social justice. Jones Marlin talked to Massive about what she loves about oxytocin, the process of opening her lab (coming in 2021 to Columbia University), and why science needs her. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Claudia López Lloreda: As a neuroscientist, a lot of times I find myself asking why I decided to study something as complex as the nervous system and the brain. Why did you decide to study the brain?

Bianca Jones Marlin: There are always questions that I find myself asking: Why is this behavioral outcome coming from this individual? Why did this person respond way better than I would have responded? When I think about those questions, while sipping coffee and pondering life, they all go back to decision making in the brain. I am just interested in figuring it out. I get to be the first one to know the answer to that, there's something magical about that. I love studying the complexity of the brain because it's interesting and it's fun. Whether or not I figure out how the brain works, the brain is still going to work. Also, we can apply [the findings] to pathological situations and to individuals who may not have the same access to things that others have that leads to a more traumatizing life or a less equal life. If I can find out mechanisms and apply those to people in life, then I've found my mission on Earth.

I follow you on Twitter and your bio says that you have a PhD in “bad parenting." Can you tell us what that means and why it's important for us to understand?

Yes, I wish Twitter gave me more space to explain that, hopefully they don't just think I'm a bad parent. My PhD work looked at maternal behavior. When a mom mouse hears the sound of a baby crying, whether it's hers or another baby crying, she’ll orient towards the sound and she'll pick it up. When a virgin mouse, who has never given birth, hears a sound, she usually will ignore it, or she'll cannibalize it. The same sound of a baby crying gives two different behavioral responses. How does the brain change to say, "I no longer can eat this annoying sound, I need to take care of it"? 

I found that oxytocin, the love hormone, changes the way the hearing centers of the brain respond to a baby crying once a mother gives birth because once you give birth, there's a lot of oxytocin release. So, we took a virgin mouse and added oxytocin to the brain. We saw changes in the way the neurons responded, they [the neurons] stopped speaking like bad nanny, where they would fire randomly, but instead they changed it to a mother's signature of neural responses. That was really cool, because the nanny stops cannibalizing and ignoring the pup and started taking care of [it]. We made a virgin into a mom without ever experiencing birth just by adding this love hormone oxytocin. 

Columbia neuroscientist Bianca Jones Marlin

Bianca Jones Marlin

Screenshot via SciFri/YouTube

Would you say that oxytocin is your favorite molecule? What do you like about it?

I don't want to say oxytocin is my favorite because I haven't dabbled in all of them. I need to check out noradrenaline and cortisol to see what's going on. But oxytocin is amazing. The cool part is oxytocin is released during these social interactions: eye contact, soft touch, orgasms, breastfeeding. One holding a child or being caressed. There's something beautiful about that. In that manner, I do think it's a pretty cool neuromodulator.

It seems like it's become a household name now. Do you have any qualms with how nonscientists talk about it?

It's a mixed response. On one hand, I'm happy people are using the word oxytocin. I'm really excited that people are engaging in the science. The part that scares me and [the part] that I'm so happy that my work is able to inform is that you can't buy oxytocin on Amazon and use it as a drink potion on your date. That's not the way oxytocin works. We need to understand the mechanisms before we use them as treatment. When we know how oxytocin works in the mammalian brain, then we can start talking about how it can work in society. I want to make sure that it's informed engagement and people aren't spending money to buy it on Amazon.

You just got appointed as an assistant professor, congratulations! Can you tell me a little bit about the process of opening your own lab?

I'll be starting my lab at the Zuckerman Institute in Columbia in the department of psychology and neuroscience. I'm in the process of reaching out to figure out what I what, my first graduate student, my first postdocs, all the while engaging in social justice. How will I practice what I preach when it comes to the people I invite into my lab? All the other labs I've been in the culture has [already] been made. I have the chance to create my own culture in the lab. What is the Marlin lab going to reflect in its scientists and society? These are things I'm thinking about all the while ordering gloves and putting plant pots in my office. It's an exciting journey because it only happens once in a PI's life. I'm really excited about setting the culture and making sure that it stands for the integrity that I believe it should, and what I want it to reflect with society.

Have you encountered discrepancies between what your expectations and what setting up a lab really means? 

I was very concerned about no one wanting to join my lab. There are also other insecurities surrounding being a female PI, being a Black PI, insecurities are reinforced by society. After a while, I concluded that this within itself is a litmus test. This is already a filter. If you don't think I'm capable of being an amazing mentor and PI because of my blackness, or because of my womanhood, then you don't belong in the lab anyway. Then it reinforces that integrity and mantra that I want my lab to be. Also, I'm getting people who are reaching out to me, left and right, who are very interested in being part of the lab. Those two things together really helped ease that anxiety. If you don't think I'm capable of being your PI, then you shouldn't be in my lab and I don't have to prove anything in that matter. Because if you have a problem with me being here, you could take it up with Columbia, they hired me.

Are you looking to continue the same research? Or are you looking for new avenues?

There are so many things I want to study. I have a book here [shows purple notebook that says Transgenerational on it]. I have so many — Evernote, my notes on my phone — and every time I'm walking around, and I see something cool to study I jot it down. Right now, I'm very interested in how stress in the environment affects the brain, the body and the children and the grandchildren of those that went through the stress. And using the senses to look at this. So, smell, taste, hearing, I'm using the senses to see how the brain changes and how that can affect subsequent generations. I am still looking at how parents change the lives of their offspring. As long as I'm surrounding how I can use science to change society for the better, those will be where my questions will lead. And as I learn more about society, those may change.

A litter of mouse pups

A litter of pups

Screenshot via SciFri/YouTube

Having participated in Black in Neuro Week, what does having that community and engaging in diversity, inclusion, and justice initiatives mean to you?

I will start by saying, I am so impressed with Black in Neuro Week. [They] have made moves that universities have spoken about for generations in the span of two weeks. If any of them want to join my lab, they should talk to me. With that being said, I do remember, in 2017 there was a string of Black male killings. It was one of the days that another Black man was murdered, we had lab meeting, and no one mentioned anything. Everyone went about their day; I was so confused. What I realized is that it's not [only about] serving on DI [diversity and inclusion] boards, speaking about diversity, teaching people who do not come from diverse backgrounds, [all of which] which I do, it's me being present. I think a lot of racism is surrounded by lack of understanding and knowledge of another human being. So, I understand that my presence within itself is a fight for equity and justice, because people get to know me as Bianca. They understand, "Oh, she is a mother. Oh man, she likes pizza. Oh my goodness, this is my favorite TV show, too. We're more similar than we are different. And she's actually cool.” I do all the other things, but also bringing people to my dinner table is social justice, because they get to see that I'm actually a full-on human being. 

Beyond the science being interesting and valuable, what else drives you to continue studying this field?

If 2020 did not give me another boost to continue to be a neuroscientist, I don't know what would. People are suffering unnecessarily, based on the cruelty of other people. That moves me to emotion because it's unnecessary, but the ramifications of it can actually be permanent. If my job could in any way, shape, or form make that part malleable, make people suffer less, then that brings me joy. It's unfortunate that my work is driven by the evils in society, but this is my way of standing against them. I can do something really cool like take neuroscience and apply it to something I feel so strongly about, which is injustice, inequity, and injustice in education.

Racial injustice and the stress it puts on black and brown people, on people who actually care is so unnecessary. But yet we know it can have ramifications for generations, which is what I study now. If I have the ability to take these evils in society and do a little bit to move in a different direction, then that's what drives me. 

Is there anything that you want to say to scientists of color in this moment and specifically, Black women?

Our presence as Black women in science is so needed because our unique perspective informs all of society. That's not to discount anyone else's perspective but because it's unique and underrepresented, it's all the more needed. Our unique perspective informs science for the better, our presence makes better science. I can also speak as a first generation American; our perspective is essential in science because we think of things differently because we've been raised differently. We figure out why there are certain diseases that affect Black American populations more than others and we figure out mechanisms that inform all populations about diseases. 

We decide not to fund projects surrounding this, we decide not to publish papers surrounding this, and it's unfortunate that racism gets in the way of humanity. It's actually quite ignorant of science to allow racism to get in the way of progress of science. It's greedy, it's self-centered. And it's not what we as Black people, brown people, underrepresented people, disabled people should have to deal with. That's my message: that our unique perspective is essential. And when we're made to feel like we're not essential because of racism. Remember that that perspective does not trump the truth: that in science I'm needed. Science needs me.