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Intelligent Machines

Prisca Marvin '85

Attorney champions autism research

When Prisca Chen Marvin left her law firm for maternity leave in 1991, she fully expected to return. “The last thing I said to them was, ‘Don’t touch my docket–I’ll be back in three weeks,’ ” says Marvin, who studied chemical engineering at MIT and graduated from Georgetown Law in 1988. Her first daughter, Victory, changed those plans, as babies often do, and Marvin never went back to practicing law. However, it was the birth of her second daughter, Helen, the following year that shifted Marvin’s life in a radical direction.

By the time Helen was one, Marvin and her husband, Kim Marvin ‘85, realized the child was remote and difficult to console, but also very bright. In 1994, they received a diagnosis of autism. “It was a tough, tough reality check,” says Marvin. Helen began two years of one-on-one behavioral therapy, then attended a school for exceptional children near the family home in Maryland. She is now homeschooled, while sister Tory is a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.

This story is part of the May/June 2009 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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“I knew enough about childhood development to know that it was unlikely that I could do anything meaningful for Helen, but I did very much want to move the science along,” says Marvin. She joined the National Alliance for Autism Research, which she chaired from 2001 to 2006, and soon was lobbying Congress for funds for autism research. She also spoke at the first White House conference on autism and led efforts to create an initiative that sponsored studies of high-risk infants to detect early signs of the disorder.

Today, Marvin sits on the executive council of the Child Study Center of Yale University School of Medicine, which is dedicated to bettering the lives of children with developmental disabilities. She is also a board member of Reaching Educational and Career Hopes at the University of Iowa, which provides educational and vocational opportunities to students with multiple cognitive disabilities. In 2008, she served on an ad hoc committee of the Alumni Association’s initiative on K-12 education in science, technology, education, and mathematics.

“I think the most important thing MIT taught me was the ability to pick myself up after failing,” says Marvin. “But it also gave me a sense of ‘Okay, there’s something I can do.’” And she credits Kim, who is a partner and managing director of the private-equity firm American Industrial Partners, with the emotional and financial support that has made her work possible.

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