For many years, materials scientists wanted to know how the abalone, a marine snail, constructed its magnificently strong shell from unpromising minerals, so that they could make similar materials themselves. Angela M. Belcher asked a different question: Why not get the abalone to make things for us?

She put a thin glass slip between the abalone and its shell, then removed it. "We got a flat pearl," she says, "which we could use to study shell formation on an hour-by-hour basis, without having to sacrifice the animal." It turns out the abalone manufactures proteins that induce calcium carbonate molecules to adopt two distinct yet seamlessly melded crystalline forms--one strong, the other fast-growing. The work earned her a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1997 and paved her way to consultancies with the pearl industry, a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a founding role in a start-up company called Cambrios in Mountain View, Calif.