As a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, Christopher Trepel studied the cellular mechanisms of memory in cats and rats until he ran into a serious obstacle: His allergies to the animals had become intolerable. He was also allergic to mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits. "I was fast running out of animals," Trepel recalls. "I kept moving up the food chain. I was going to have to use humans, and that's prohibited." He also had a qualm about academic science: A professor trains 40 people in his career, and vacates only one position when he leaves. "You've got 39 people floating around who aren't going to be able to replace you," he says.

One day, Trepel, contemplating his love for science, his allergies, and his other options, attended a presentation at UCSF by the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The talk piqued his interest. So he brushed up...

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