Bianca Jones Marlin: The True Superhero of Motherly Love

As a child Bianca Jones Marlin saw the trauma caused by broken family bonds first hand, and has devoted her academic career to examining the many bonds between mother and child. Her remarkable research has covered everything from the hormones that cause the brain to love, to the ways that traumatic experiences can be passed from generation to generation through our genes, and has led to a far greater understanding of the surprising Superpower of parenthood. 

Fostering an interest in family

Bianca was born in 1986 in Queens, New York; her mother had recently emigrated from Guyana to New York, where she met and married Bianca’s father. The family soon moved to Central Islip, Long Island, where Bianca’s mother took a job delivering copies of Newsday, Long Island’s main newspaper, while her father started a home improvement company. Many of Bianca’s earliest memories of her childhood are of “staying up all night in the dusty newspaper depot warehouse to collate the separate paper sections for the Sunday delivery, then jumping in the car to deliver them to hundreds of neighbors before sunrise. Albeit a memory that was not always pleasant… it taught her hard work and dedication to any trade.”

Bianca Jones Marlin: The True Superhero of Motherly Love

BY
SPYSCAPE
5
MINUTE READ
Share with Twitter
@SPYSCAPE
Share
Share to Facebook
Share to Twitter
Share with email

As a child Bianca Jones Marlin saw the trauma caused by broken family bonds first hand, and has devoted her academic career to examining the many bonds between mother and child. Her remarkable research has covered everything from the hormones that cause the brain to love, to the ways that traumatic experiences can be passed from generation to generation through our genes, and has led to a far greater understanding of the surprising Superpower of parenthood. 

Fostering an interest in family

Bianca was born in 1986 in Queens, New York; her mother had recently emigrated from Guyana to New York, where she met and married Bianca’s father. The family soon moved to Central Islip, Long Island, where Bianca’s mother took a job delivering copies of Newsday, Long Island’s main newspaper, while her father started a home improvement company. Many of Bianca’s earliest memories of her childhood are of “staying up all night in the dusty newspaper depot warehouse to collate the separate paper sections for the Sunday delivery, then jumping in the car to deliver them to hundreds of neighbors before sunrise. Albeit a memory that was not always pleasant… it taught her hard work and dedication to any trade.”

Article Ad

Her parents had more unusual lessons to teach her. Once they were settled in Long Island, they began to have more children of their own, but also started fostering children. Nobody’s quite sure how many children were fostered by the family in total, but Bianca estimates that during her time in the house she had between 20 and 30 foster siblings, some staying for years, others for barely a week. Bianca learned a great deal from them; as she would later explain - “I had very few worries, I was happy, but my foster siblings came from homes where that wasn’t always the case, and there were stories of abuse, there were stories of neglect, stories of trauma, and also the trauma of being separated from your parents”. 

The love hormone

Bianca’s experiences with her foster siblings did not immediately lead her to neuroscience; at first she wanted to go into teaching, and after getting excellent grades in high school she won a scholarship to St John’s University to study a dual degree in biology and adolescent education, but funding herself through college was a struggle. She found herself unable to meet her housing costs, and ended up living out of the living rooms of friends and relatives, often being forced to commute several hours back and forth to her classes. Her grades suffered and she lost her scholarship for a period, but was eventually able to complete her degree thanks to part time jobs. She also studied hard through the summers, attending a research programme at Vanderbilt University, and thanks to her research there she was invited to undertake further graduate research at MIT.  

She recounts how she did not know what MIT was and was uninterested in the offer until seeing the movie 21 - about blackjack card counters from MIT - which convinced her that it was a place worth studying at. She worked in the lab of Martha Constantine-Paton, an eminent neuroscientist who specialized in brain development, and this sparked Bianca’s fascination with neuroscience. After graduating from St John’s she applied to NYU for graduate research in neuroscience, and also took a job at a nearby IHOP to ensure her previous financial jitters were a one-off.

At NYU, Bianca began to study the maternal bonds formed between rodents and their pups, and particularly the role of what is popularly called “the love hormone” - oxytocin - in the bonding process. These studies resulted in a groundbreaking paper published in 2015, entitled “Oxytocin Enables Maternal Behavior by Balancing Cortical Inhibition”. The paper describes how oxytocin changes the way mice respond to the distressed cries of young mice. If a pup falls out of their nest, a mother will respond to its cries by retrieving it, but a virgin mouse ignores the call. Marlin was able to demonstrate that increasing oxytocin levels in virgin mice caused them to react to the distress calls, and permanently changed structures in the brain which governed these responses. 

Generational trauma

Her next research subject was arguably even more remarkable. In 2016 Marlin joined Colombia University as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the lab of Richard Axel, who had been awarded the Nobel prize in 2004 for his research into the olfactory systems of rodents. Bianca used the techniques Axel had pioneered to demonstrate an extraordinary theory - transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. In short, this refers to the transfer of genetic traits from parents to their unborn children, something which Bianca was able to prove by pairing smell cues with gentle shocks of mice, and then studying the neural and behavioral changes in their pups. Despite never having experienced the trauma themselves, the young of these mice had adaptations that were clearly caused by the experiences of their parents.

These results proved a theory whose effects had been studied for a long time; perhaps the most famous example being the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. The children - and grandchildren - of the survivors of this famine were known to be more prone to diabetes and other risk factors that were thought to be caused by genetic adaptations that could be traced back to their family’s trauma. These discoveries led to Marlin being invited to join the faculty at Columbia in 2020, where she now heads the Marlin Lab, whose mission is to “uncover the mechanisms by which learning and emotion in one generation are transmitted biologically, rather than culturally”.

Bianca reciting her story for the Story Collider podcast

These remarkable discoveries have enormous implications for the types of healthcare and support made available to new mothers, and reveal an enormous amount about the biological basis for the way humans care for our children, but Bianca’s work in these areas is not just limited to the laboratory. She’s an accomplished public speaker who has invested a great deal of time and effort into sharing her experiences and using them to provide context for her research. She has long drawn parallels between her own childhood experiences listening to her foster siblings describe their trauma, and her subsequent research into the causes and effects of separating mothers from their children. She’s also talked openly about her own struggle with the desire to foster children, just as her parents did, and described the difficult choices she has been forced to make in a remarkable Story Collider podcast entitled “Becoming Mom: Stories about wanting to mother”. For this True Superhero of motherly bonding, the practical application of her ideas is just as important as the theoretical, but the benefits of her research seem likely to have an enormous impact in the wider world, and help us gain a far better understanding of the importance of motherhood in shaping our societies.  

Read mORE

RELATED aRTICLES

Gadgets & Gifts

Put your spy skills to work with these fabulous choices from secret notepads & invisible inks to Hacker hoodies & high-tech handbags. We also have an exceptional range of rare spy books, including many signed first editions.

Shop Now

Your Spy SKILLS

We all have valuable spy skills - your mission is to discover yours. See if you have what it takes to be a secret agent, with our authentic spy skills evaluation* developed by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence. It's FREE so share & compare with friends now!

dISCOVER Your Spy SKILLS

* Find more information about the scientific methods behind the evaluation here.