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Claire Tomlin, 37
Aviation engineer, 2006 MacArthur Fellow

"If you're hitting your head against the wall," says Tomlin, a professor at Stanford and Berkeley who on a given day might be developing a mathematical model for air-traffic control systems, "the students can often provide new insights. My office is next to my lab, and so I wander in and talk to whoever is there"—though the conversation may have nothing to do with what she's working on. "Consciously thinking about something else and then returning to the problem gives me a fresh perspective."