Judith Britz decided to leave academic science for industry during her morning commute one day in 1986. She had exited Interstate 95 on the way to work as a postdoctorate fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But when she pulled onto the off ramp and hit the brakes, she didn't slow down. "The brakes failed and scared the hell out of me," says Britz. "I was able to stop the car with my hand brake. I was so frightened and at the same time angry because we had replaced the brakes before and I knew it was going to cost more than $200."

It was $200 the Britz family didn't have. She and her husband, a plant physiologist with the US Department of Agriculture, were rearing three children, and Judy earned only $18,000 a year. "I thought, this is too much," recalls Britz, whose credentials include a graduate...

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