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Is it possible to be overqualified for a PhD?

As the George Mason University’s Class of 2013 graduates this week, this year’s oldest graduate might also be the school’s most accomplished.

On May 16, student Mario Cardullo, of Alexandria, will celebrate his 78th birthday while receiving his PhD during a convocation graduation ceremony for the Volgenau School of Engineering.

The day will mark a lifetime in education for Cardullo, the son of an Italian immigrant and the first in his family to attend college after graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, in New York, in 1953, which predates the birth of the parents of many of his fellow graduates.

In 1957, Cardullo earned his first college degree, a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. Since then, Cardullo’s career has included titles like: rocket scientist, restaurant owner, published author, engineering hall of famer, patent holder, inventor, educator and local-TV chef … The list goes on and on.

Here’s how it happened:



The Rocket Scientist

On Oct. 1, 1957, Cardullo was hired at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station in Lake Denmark, New Jersey, where he helped to develop liquid rocket propulsion engines. Three days later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite.

Cardullo would spend the next several years developing concepts later used by NASA’s Apollo mission Lunar Lander. He also served in Bell Lab’s system engineering company devoted to NASA’s Apollo Program as the senior propulsion system engineer for liquid rocket propulsion.

“My mother was an Italian immigrant and when I was 16 and told her I wanted to be a rocket propulsion engineer, my mother said, ‘What is that?” Cardullo said. “I accomplished my dream by helping put a man on the moon… [During] the moon landing, I was sitting out at my house in Potomac, Md. and it was one in the morning and I had in my hand the last paper I had written at Bellcom (now Bell Labs, which helped develop the Apollo technology) on the landing. And I knew they were going to make it because I had it in writing, in hand.”

All of Cardullo’s research papers from Bellcom’s Apollo program are now part of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum collection in Washington, D.C.



Adviser to the Roman Catholic Church

While living in Maryland with his first wife and small children, Cardullo wanted to know when a Catholic church might open nearby.

“I wrote [the bishop] a letter saying I would like to determine when we’re going to have a church there,” Cardullo said. “The bishop at the time responded, ‘My son, only God knows when we’re going to have a church there.’”

So, Cardullo drafted a report on the need for a church in his community using the same principals he applied to system engineering. The report and the bishop’s letter were mailed to the archbishop, who Cardullo said would later become a cardinal.

“The next I heard was that bishop had been moved to New Orleans to be an archbishop and the church [today St. Raphael in Rockville] was being built there on Dunster Road,” Cardullo said. He would later be hired to conduct the first management study of the Catholic Church for Davenport, Iowa’s diocese.

During a trip home from St. Paul, Minn on church business, Cardullo would meet an IBM engineer, who would give him the idea for his first invention.



The inventor

“I was coming back from St. Paul, Minnesota and I was sitting next to an engineer from IBM… He was telling me they were putting large barcodes on the side of railroad cars so they could track them and it wasn’t working,” Cardullo said. Pulling out a notebook, which he always carries with him, Cardullo said, “I sketched out an idea. It became the RFID-TAG.”

The Radio-Frequency Identification Transponder (RFID) is early technology similar to that used in today’s toll road E-ZPass.

“I’m an entrepreneur,” Cardullo said. “I never gamble on cards or any of that. I always gamble on myself.”

Cardullo also was the first to digitize electrocardiograms (EKGs) and send them, for $25 each, from hospitals after analysis from his designed equipment on early fax machines.

“That’s the first digital transmission of medical data,” he said.

Today, Cardullo is waiting on approval for about a dozen invention patents. He was nominated to the U.S. Patent Office’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and was awarded the Outstanding Alumni of New York University Poly for his invention of the RFID in June 2010.

“I’ve applied for 11 new patents,” he said. “One is a new light [bulb] that has no mercury.” In April, Cardullo was awarded the patent for his plastic light bulb, which uses less energy than LED [Light-emitting diode] bulbs.



The TV chef and restaurateur

During the late 1970s, Cardullo taught Italian cooking classes at the Alexandria First Presbyterian Church. His classes were popular and led to Channel 7 requesting his talents for television.

“I was asked to do a cooking show once a month,” Cardullo said. “I was ‘the Renaissance Chef.’ It was a small [15 minute] segment on the Sunday morning show.”

The segment ran from 1977 to 1983.

In the 1980s, Cardullo opened a fast food Italian restaurant that relied on pasta that could be cooked in one minute.

“I thought, why not make pasta into a fast food,” he said. The two test restaurants were called Yankee Noodle Dandy and were in Montgomery Mall and Crystal City underground.



The Mexican investment banker

“A neighbor of mind worked for the Pan American Health Organization,” Cardullo said. “He said to me, ‘Do you think you can go to Mexico City and lecture on system engineering in dentistry?”

Cardullo headed to Mexico in the early 1970s, where he would serve as the president of Venture Management, Inc., a venture capital firm that was a joint investment program with the Mexican government in industrial development areas.



The educator and author

Cardullo has taught at the university level for about 25 years, including 16 years as an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Graduate Center in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, where he retired in 2005. He is now a visiting lecturer in Great Britain and in China. He has authored or co-authored a number of textbooks and papers on engineering, venture capital, entrepreneurship and financial engineering.

Cardullo is the Chairman of the Cardullo Innovation Group (CIG), Ltd., a company that builds prototypes and promotes his patents. He has consulted and helped to write two textbooks on technological entrepreneurship and is currently co-writing a book on global finance, which is due out in December 2014. His last textbook, “Technological Entrepreneurism: Enterprise Formation, Financing and Growth,” was translated by Beijing University and promoted by the President of China.



The PhD student

Cardullo’s friends and family say getting a PhD was more about what the degree symbolizes than the value-added education.

“He’s a one-of-a-kind student, there’s no questioning it. It’s not so much his age but his experience,” George Mason Professor of inventive engineering Tomasz Arciszewski said. “He wanted to get his PhD as sort of a stamp of approval for his academic credentials… Younger students take a class for the credit. He has a different priority. It’s more about learning.

Cardullo’s wife of 37 years, Karen Cardullo, is currently working on her third master’s, this one in History of Decorative Arts at Mason. She said she was inspired to go back to school last fall, in part because of her husband.

“He doesn’t look at age or other factors as a constraint,” she said. “He had an end point in mind. He wanted his PhD.”

Age may have impacted Cardullo’s studies, but did not hinder him toward getting his degree. About a year ago, Cardullo fell at the gym and was taken to the hospital. His injuries limited his mobility.

“He had to stay in the family room because he couldn’t go up and down the stairs,” Karen said. “He had his computer and was writing his dissertation [from his hospital bed and later one at home]… That’s pretty impressive. He didn’t let an obstacle overtake him.”

Cardullo’s family, which includes children and grandchildren, traveled in for his graduation.

“My first grandchild will go to college next fall,” Cardullo said. “When I went to college [in the 1950s], I lived at home because I was working. The entire semester, for 21 credits, was $375.”

On getting his PhD. Cardullo said, “It’s not hard. It’s a lot of fun actually…I went back because I was basically interested in a particular problem.”

In 2008, as the U.S. financial market crashed, Cardullo was in the hospital suffering from a subterranean hematoma. He said it was there that he came up with the idea of studying the stock market from the point of view of thermodynamics.

“My career has been wild. I’ve had many careers,” he said. But his approach to life has been the same. “Be curious and try to understand the universe you live in.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com