In a span of seven years, Loretta Weathers moved from a plasma physics laboratory at MIT to a federal courtroom, trading long days of crunching data for the adrenalin rush of high-stakes litigation.

The daughter of a Detroit autoworker, she had been tinkering with gadgets since she was a child. But after a few semesters in the prestigious Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she abandoned the solitude of the lab for a journey that took her to law school and an unexpected career as a patent lawyer.