Building Community Through Service: Bianca Jones Marlin on Volunteer Leadership
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- History of SfN: 50th Anniversary
When Bianca Jones Marlin started saying “yes” to service opportunities, she started giving to and building her community. “That's the way that the community grows,” she says, “but also it brings me joy. It makes me happy to know that the work that I do, my voice and my presence, will help influence change for the better.”
In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Jones Marlin, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute and the incoming chair of SfN’s Trainee Advisory Committee, talks about how she’s found community within the Society and her involvement with the Trainee Advisory Committee.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
In addition to explaining how the committee serves as the voice of the newest generation of neuroscientists, Jones Marlin shares her perspective on the rewards of volunteer leadership, how service can improve your scientific skills, and her aims for the future of volunteer leadership at SfN.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. Bianca Jones-Marlin, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute and a Donald B. Lindsley Prize winner in 2016. Dr. Jones-Marlin serves as incoming chair of the Trainee Advisory Committee and is a member of the Online Program Steering Committee and the Leadership Development Program Advisory Group.
Taylor Johnson, SfN’s multimedia manager, and Dr. Jones-Marlin talk over the phone about her involvement with the Trainee Advisory Committee, the joys of volunteer leadership, as well as her aims for the future of volunteer leadership at SfN.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our Podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Swanson. Hi, everyone. You're listening to The History of the Society for Neuroscience. My name is Taylor Johnson. One thing as we've gone through this audio series — there's been a common thread besides, of course, the Society itself, and that has been volunteer leadership.
We've heard about that from a lot of the neuroscientists we've talked to, and volunteer leadership is actually the theme of this episode. Joining me for it is Dr. Bianca Jones-Marlin. She's a neuroscientist and postdoctoral fellow at the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. Dr. Marlin, welcome.
JONES-MARLIN: Thank you. Thank you for having me today.
JOHNSON: Well, we're really excited to have you, and again thanks for coming. Before we get into discussing volunteer leadership, I'd like to ask if you wouldn't mind giving us a bit of a primer on your academic background and the current research you're working on.
JONES-MARLIN: Yes. My research looks at parental behaviors and behaviors that are essential for survival in mice. My PhD work was with Robert Frank at New York University, and I looked at maternal behaviors, how I can essentially make low-performing moms into better moms. I looked at the "love drug" oxytocin and how that changes the way a mouse will perceive an infant crying.
That work led me into further investigating parental behavior. So now I'm a postdoctoral researcher with Richard Axel here at Columbia, and I'm looking at how a paternal experience could essentially be passed down through generations. It's called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.
Essentially it changes around one's genome, around a mouse genome that will lead to a memory in the kids and the grandkids of that experience, and how that can be both beneficial but also toxic if it's a negative experience and it's no longer present in the kids and the grandkids.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. We can certainly touch on some of your current research later on, but that's great to hear about that. I know also you've been published in Nature and of course in the Journal of Neuroscience.
JONES-MARLIN: Yes. Thank you.
JOHNSON: Speaking of the Journal of Neuroscience , let's move on to the Society for Neuroscience. Now, when did you first join the Society, was that in 2012?
JONES-MARLIN: I first joined SfN in 2012 as a graduate student. A rule in our lab was that we could only attend SfN if we had a poster. I remember being really excited about finally getting the culmination of my rotation and diving into the first year of lab together.
I was a second-year graduate student at the time, and I presented a poster and since then I've been there every year since then, 2012.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. When you were learning about the Society of Neuroscience, was this something, when you started doing your graduate school work, were you aware, was this sort of a plan to join the Society? What was your impetus to join?
JONES-MARLIN: My impetus to join at the time was definitely the annual meeting. As I got to invest myself into meeting and then also the Society for itself, I realized the benefits of actually joining as a member, the Society for Neuroscience. And not just for the annual meeting, but for everything that's offered throughout the year. But I definitely was introduced to that at the annual meeting.
JOHNSON: The first annual meeting, which one was that?
JONES-MARLIN: This is 2012. Was that DC at the time? It may have been DC. I was there for New Orleans, but that may have been DC at the time. Oh goodness, you're going to have to tell me that one.
JOHNSON: I'll do some research. Are there any stories, maybe not necessarily from your first meeting, though if you have some stories from your first meeting that'd be nice too. But sort of like some of your first memories of the meeting. What struck you about these meetings, in the Society presenting this forum for neuroscientists to meet?
JONES-MARLIN: I remember being starstruck. The meeting sometimes has the title of being really big and very overwhelming. I've had the opportunity with the Society for Neuroscience to talk about a few ways that trainees and graduate students and postdocs can really take that overwhelming feeling and make it beneficial for them.
I remember thinking, There's so many people here. I was riding on the escalator reading people's name-tags and my hands were getting shaky and now because these are people whose papers I read, who I never thought I'd be riding the escalator with. Do I introduce myself or not? Do I just smile and not? And as I've gone year after year, I realize I've found small communities.
Those really, I think, developed from, as crazy as this sounds, the poster sessions. I love the poster sessions at SfN, the annual meeting because it's one-on-one conversation that you can't normally have after one of the talks. And it's hard to have on an escalator.
I remember my first year having people who were related to the work I was doing in maternal behavior and oxytocin come by my poster and that was my chance to actually speak with them. I was very junior. I asked them questions about what their opinions were, and they were able to give me feedback, and feedback that wasn't scary, because it wasn't in front of a large group of people and I didn't have to be defensive.
I could actually take that in, write it down and think about that. So I think my favorite part from that point forward has always been the poster sessions, because of the humanity associated with it.
JOHNSON: Did you find that you would see the same people each successive year, and did those poster sessions build relationships that you could continue throughout? Not necessarily just at the meeting but just throughout your relationship in the science but also with the Society?
JONES-MARLIN: Hands down. I believe that the actual annual participation, that number hasn't changed that much from over a span that I would note from 2012 to 2019, but it feels smaller, and I think it feels smaller now because of the people that I know. You know the poster session hall, you get to create as a family, because every year, year after year, if you're presenting a poster as it grows, you're around those same people.
I was a little bit heartbroken to change fields knowing that I wouldn't see the same auditory people at the pre-meeting and then around the poster session. Now I'm in olfaction and so it's seemingly a little bit larger now that I'm going into a new field. But I know that eventually it's going to have that same familiar feeling.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. Well, this is a perfect segue into talking about how you started as a volunteer leader with the Society, because obviously you've had a positive experience and it's meant a lot for your career.
I'm looking at, let's see, these various points here, and it's sort of like the acronym game. It looks like the Neuroscience Scholars Program, Online Program Steering Committee, Leadership Development Program, and of course the Trainee Advisory Committee. So we've got NSP, OPSC, LDP, and TAC. Am I missing anything?
JONES-MARLIN: Website Advisory Committee, WAC. But who's counting?
JOHNSON: Right. They are losing track of all this. Clearly you have gotten involved and obviously you were a member of the Society, but then you decided to get involved and volunteer your time. How did that start? What got you into wanting to volunteer your time and do even more for the Society?
JONES-MARLIN: I'd seen that a few PIs that I knew had served on-and-off at SfN outside of the actual annual meeting, and I believe that my name was suggested as someone to start for the Trainee Advisory Committee, TAC. And when I went to the first meeting — it's a two-year appointment — when I went to the first meeting, I was so impressed at a different element of neuroscience.
From what I'd observed as a trainee up to that point, you could walk into a lab with your jeans and sneakers and T-shirt, and you have your headphones on and you do your experiments, and then you head out. This was a formalized structure of neuroscience I had never seen before, and I found it very exciting to see how things happen in the backdrop before the annual meeting and to maintain the Society for Neuroscience as a whole annually.
The function of it, I was just fascinated, because it was the business component that I had never observed as a trainee. I assumed that all institutes have this business component, but as a graduate student, you don't see it at all. Maybe a formalized committee meeting, but that's about it. And so I was really impressed as to how we as a Trainee Advisory Committee come up with an idea after posing a problem.
The leaders of TAC, so it's Trainee Advisory Committee, TAC, we call ourselves, they would say, "There's a problem with membership." We would sit around and we would brainstorm, and people would take notes and we'd give suggestions and ideas, and the next meeting we would see actual results and what came to fruition from our conversation.
It was just so amazing to see that structure take place. And it is essentially how science works. I just had never seen it applied to people, for example, or large numbers to that manner. To make it happen. I think that was the biggest thing, to make change happen.
JOHNSON: I'd love to touch on that a little bit later. But I was curious if you could walk me through the progression since you've joined SfN, leading up to your position at TAC.
JONES-MARLIN: I think it started from me deciding that the Society for Neuroscience at the annual meeting was going to be my meeting of choice. I saw that many people, when you have the ability to, I know not every institute, every scientist, and every lab has the ability to choose a meeting to go to every year. But because of my location and because of what my lab could offer and the fellowship I was on, I decided SfN was going to be the one that I was going to continually attend. And so from 2012 attending, presenting a poster, I definitely did a minisymposium, nanosymposium. So I was able to give two talks at SfN. I think from there, establishing myself as someone who continually was presenting at SfN and being given the opportunity to start on TAC, I took that scene from being someone who was presenting to being someone who was presenting for other people presenting.
Giving the podcast or talking about the podcast — at the time this wasn't established then. So my name was suggested to take part in TAC, and once I was on TAC, that's when there were opportunities to say, "Would you like to be part of the Online Program Steering Committee, the OPSC? Would you like to be part of the Web Advisory Committee, WAC?" Like all these things came through taking that first step of joining TAC, and then from there you can say, "No, TAC is perfectly fine. That's where I want to stand." Or you can say, "Yes, these are the opportunities."
I started to say yes to them and here we are now. I was a Neuroscience Scholars Program associate, which gave me the benefit of attending the annual meetings. I wasn't part of the program, but the benefit of that is that I still got to meet the people who were actually in the program, and I was associated with it, so I got to go to their annual meeting, and that has been an amazing experience as well. I went back earlier after I had already become alum to speak to the Neuroscience Scholars Program.
It was just an amazing opportunity to be someone who benefited from it and now that was able to contribute to it. I think that's the beauty of volunteering at SfN, because it's not just what you get out of it, but it's what you can give to it as well and give to your community.
JOHNSON: We can take a step back from the Society specifically, but I was just curious about your philosophy of volunteering and volunteer leadership, and why it's important, whether it's for the Society or anything involving science and communities.
JONES-MARLIN: I know that I wouldn't be where I am right now, which is a postdoc here at Columbia in a position I'm very happy in, if it wasn't for people taking time outside of their life to invest in me. Not only is it an obligation I feel that we have as neuroscientists to make sure that we are giving outside of ourself and outside of our direct benefit to our community, because we know eventually this is going to come back to benefit us.
But in the meantime, it may be hard to train someone who's an undergraduate when you're a graduate student and you have a lot of papers to read and a committee meeting coming up, or you're a postdoc who's helping another postdoc over their fellowship and you have to apply for your own. But it's our onus as scientists to do it, because it builds a community. I firmly believe that.
Every step I would like the community to feel like a place that I am part of, that I am contributing to and I'm happy with. If there's something that doesn't align with that, it's a chance to invest in it for change. Lip service doesn't induce change. It’s activity that induces change, and not everything needs to be changed — some things just need to be improved. There's always room for improvement. Not that things are bad, but in the spaces that they are, that's our job and that's our duty.
Part of it's payback, just because I think that's the way that the community grows, but also it brings me joy. It makes me happy to know that the work that I do, that my voice and my presence will help influence change for the better. That makes me happy. So I think it's two-fold: A, it's our obligation, it's our duty because it's the taxes we pay a scientist, but also it's a blast. Those two things really fuel me to continue to lead in service.
JOHNSON: Was there any kind of person or group of people that were particularly inspirational in striving to change for the better?
JONES-MARLIN: I think in every aspect of my career, there's always been someone who I say, "I admire that person. I admire the way they navigate this world." And I think a lot of that probably has to come or probably comes from the fact that they invested when they didn't have to.
I wouldn't say there's one person that's a pinnacle outside of my parents who definitely have dedicated their life in ways that not everyone does to benefit societies. Maybe we can talk about in the future. But nonetheless, I think from undergraduate all the way through graduate school to now, there's always been people who are doing above and beyond what they have to do, and it benefits me and they don't have to do that. They're not getting paid to do that. I just think that's something that's such an admirable trait. That is something I want to reflect.
I think when it comes to people who have put their foot down and put their money where their mouth is, when it comes to change, my parents are definitely people who have instilled in me the purpose of and the importance of contributing to their community. My parents are both foster parents, and so they took children in whose parents couldn't always take care of them a given moment in time for whatever, a series of reasons, and they invested in them.
I thought that was something that I wanted to do, even if it's not particularly with children but with my community. So I think that's something I found really admirable. There are people out there in the world to do it constantly, and I seem to find them in every step I stepped into.
JOHNSON: So earlier you mentioned about changing for the better within the Society and with within your role on TAC. And I kind of wanted to take a look at the developments and changes you've seen since being a member of the Society even before you were involved more, but sort of what you've seen at that point.
And then, after that I will ask what you'd like to see. So we'll start with the first part. What changes or developments have you seen since you became a member, including your involvement with the Trainee Advisory Committee?
JONES-MARLIN: I think one of the changes I was most impressed by, because just to see it come to its essence from a conversation, was the conversation of membership. We as Trainee Advisory Committee members, we advise committees specifically that go directly to the Committee on Committees, because there are a lot of committees and we provide the trainee perspective.
There was one element that came up, the conversation surrounding membership and maintaining membership throughout the year, and not just for this Society for Neuroscience, but all the benefits that SfN has and offers online, and meetings, et cetera, that could be maintained for membership throughout the year.
We broke up into groups and we had conversations and Trainee Advisory Committee, TAC. We came up with an idea of having extended membership — so on the website, instead of purchasing membership for one year, you can essentially subscribe for two years. That idea was noted, and that next meeting, it was established on their website.
Something as simple as what works for us — we are a generation, as trainees now, for most of the generations, in which we're tech-savvy. Our subscriptions for music and for the arts usually are serviced over two years. That idea came from us, came from our group.
To see our thoughts and ideas honored in that manner and then put into practice, it was just really cool, and we were able to look at the stats after that establishment. We saw that membership increased, and that means membership is going to increase for two years because it's a two year commitment to that membership. Seeing something like that happen in real time was really cool.
I'm currently here chatting with you about the podcast. That's something that we've been talking about for the last four years on TAC, knowing that the 50th anniversary was coming up, and so to chat about what that would look like on TAC and then now to be part of it is another one of those instances where things actually come from an idea to practice volunteering at SfN.
JOHNSON: So as you know, you really represent the next generation of volunteer leadership of course with your leadership role on TAC. As that takes shape, what are some of the developments that you're hoping to take forward with the Society?
JONES-MARLIN: Yes. I'm currently the incoming chair for the Trainee Advisory Committee, a position I’m really excited to serve on because as TAC, we’re the voice of trainees, and that's such an important position to be in. Numerically, we represent the majority of the neuroscience community, and for a VPI, how many postdocs and graduate students, undergraduates work under a single scientist both in academia and also in industry?
To take on the ability to speak for my peers is just, I'm so excited to take part. I think one conversation that my ears are tuned to, is that not just for the scientists here in the US but the scientists abroad. The Society for Neuroscience is international, and to make sure that accessibility, that the conversations that we have are not just for American scientists but also for the scientists that are coming from other countries to America, and for the scientists who are not currently in the United States.
That we're still making sure that everything that we're providing can be accessible and attainable even with conversation and sensitivity of culture to them. I'm excited to do that. I am American, I'm trained here in America, but taking that thought process on really is a service that goes beyond me. I need to rely on my peers to give me information so that I can advise TAC and committee on committees about what that looks like. I'm proud to stand as a voice for my peers in that matter.
JOHNSON: That's great. Obviously we're looking at the 50th anniversary of the Society, and in this audio series we've talked about how the Society and neuroscience in general have grown up together. A lot has certainly changed in neuroscience as well as just in the world in general over the past 50 years.
What do you see as the future for the Society moving forward? Like let's think of it the next 50 years and kind of what you want it to be in terms of its membership and what other volunteer and future volunteer leaders can contribute to the society.
JONES-MARLIN: So as time goes on, technology becomes renewed and reestablished and strengthened. And so to develop alongside technology, I'm really excited to see what neuroscience is going to provide. But I think in the same essence, especially us as trainees, technology is essential, but we haven't lost the root of the questions that we asked.
I think those are very holistic, and so I'm excited to see over the next 50 years looking at how technology is used to go back to humanity, if that is clear. So using technology as a means to connect with our Earth, connect with our nature, connect with our mind, and just optimizing what technology can provide to answer the questions that we couldn't answer in the past.
I think that we are in neuroscience at a really exciting time, and the opportunity that we have as trainees — look back at old papers and during classes, et cetera, and how we've answered questions that we couldn't answer in the same exact way 50 years ago, but the questions are still the same. The questions are still there because we're still probing the brain and we just have different opportunities to do it now with technology. I think it's going to be really exciting for bringing it back to grass roots, as ironic as that sounds.
JOHNSON: Well, there's kind of an elegance in that that you had brought up as well. Earlier when you were talking about how the Society — it's an international organization, it matters to keep it global because science is global. And the future of the Society, I was wondering if obviously the technology can help bring the world together in terms of making it easier for us to collaborate.
JONES-MARLIN: Exactly, exactly, and the ease in which we now can speak to our collaborators across the globe and across time essentially is the beauty of what the annual meeting is, for example, which is sharing ideas and disseminating thoughts all in one local place. But the ability to do that throughout the area and with using different technologies is really going to edify the scientific process.
JOHNSON: Obviously the annual meeting has been referred to as the brick and mortar of the Society. But as technology gets better and if there's more of an emphasis on global collaboration that's not necessarily all in the same place, what do you see as the future of balancing the technology as well as the annual meeting? Because the annual meeting in a way is really a grassroots representation, if you will, of the Society.
JONES-MARLIN: Yes. Hands down. I don't think they will ever become so polarized or separate where it's one or the other. I think they work in fluidity. And so the ability to come to the annual meeting for those who can and those are who are here, it opens doors via conversation, via eye contact, via those amazing poster sessions that I chatted about earlier and how exciting those are.
And then to be able to go back to your respective institutions, share what you've learned at SfN and create connections there, that's when the magic starts. It’s an opportunity to focus our time and energy and 30,000 people into one place for one period of time for one week, but that's just the seed that spreads the actual growth and tree of the connections and science.
And so we do need that root. That's going to be essential for knowing what's happening in other institutions across the world, but then those conversations can continue over the year and over years using the benefits we have with technology now.
JOHNSON: What do you see as challenges to the Society and working with its members around the world? Being an international organization but moving forward basically and into the next 50 years of the Society?
JONES-MARLIN: I think one of the most important parts of what the Society stands for and what we want to do and continue doing, I think it would be accessibility. The questions that we're asking in neuroscience shouldn't be for one particular people, group, country, socioeconomic layout, because we're looking at the brain and all humans have a brain. And so making sure that the accessibility to ask the questions that are pertinent to you is established, I think that's how neuroscience grows and blooms and that's how the Society grows and blooms.
I am focused on parental behavior because that's important for me as a mom, as someone who grew up with parents who are foster parents, as a former teacher. I bring a very unique spin into my research program, but that's just me and my contribution. My contribution is extremely important because of my unique life, but so is every other neuroscientist’s.
Giving the accessibility to people to share their neuroscience, to get proper feedback, whether at the annual meeting or online, to have access to the online information that Society for Neuroscience provides. All of those things will help edify the neuroscience because everyone's unique perspective is essential for these things to run.
The people who are interested solely in optogenetics, their focus is essential for my research program. I may not be for theirs, but someone else's will be, and so us all focusing on our individual components, but having access to everyone else's components, that's where we really, really grow. And that's what I'm looking forward to in the next 50 years.
JOHNSON: Does that excite you? I mean does that excite you the most about the field, this blooming, expanding the field and the collaboration? What excites you most about the future of the field?
JONES-MARLIN: I'm so excited for this aspect. I can't wait until I have the opportunity to run my own research program where I can recruit my own trainees and then my own postdocs with the same mentality that each individual is going to bring their own unique perspective that's going to edify our lab’s program, our institution’s program, and the Society’s program and the neuroscience as a whole, its program.
In that manner it's the one thing that keeps late nights in the lab, and papers upon papers and revisions upon revisions going, because we're contributing to something way bigger than what we do every day. And that's an honor.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much. That was really wonderful. Really a wonderful answer and really appreciate your thoughts on all of that. I think we're about ready to wrap up. Is there anything else that I missed or anything that you would like to talk about that's important to you that you'd like the audience to hear?
JONES-MARLIN: I think if I was to leave with one more message to people who are having the opportunity to listen, it would be the joy of serving and leadership positions with SfN. I know we as trainees are, we're sometimes overwhelmed. We have a lot of work to do in our respective programs and fields whether undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs, or research assistants, et cetera.
We're training for the goal of being excellent neuroscientists, no matter what field we're going into — industry, academia, et cetera. Our main focus is the science, and it's very common that — I felt at times, and we can feel at times — that we don't have time to serve, it's not a paid position. It takes away from lab. If I could share one thing, it's being part of TAC, being a leader in the Society for Neuroscience is one of the most edifying things I've done thus far. It's perfected my science skills, the way I answer and ask questions, and the people I'm able to ask these questions to and meet with.
It really has changed my approach on science, and I'm looking forward to serving well into my future. So as overwhelming as it may seem at that period in time, it's worth it. Because change is happening on all fronts, not just with our science, but with where science is going. We're pretty much putting something back into the pot, and it's going to benefit us. So don't be overwhelmed or intimidated by serving. Not only is it our duty, but it's our joy and we should all optimize on that. If everyone can serve to the extent they can, whether it's at their own local institution or larger than that, they should, and we should.
JOHNSON: Wonderful. I can't thank you enough. That was an amazing answer and it's just great to hear your thoughts on all of this and we really appreciate you sitting down with us and talking about volunteer leadership and to the Society in general at this time of the 50th anniversary.
JONES-MARLIN: Yes, thank you very much. Thank you so much for having me.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.