Mark Kroll (Math ’76, ME M.S. ’83, Ph.D. ’87)—Creative problem solver

When it comes to asking how something can be improved, Mark Kroll (Math ’76, ME M.S. ’83, Ph.D. ’87) can hardly help himself. He recalls a few years ago standing in an airport security line. The table where passengers spread out their luggage was placed awkwardly so that the line snaked back on itself and traffic jammed to a halt.

Kroll figured he knew a better location.

“I thought to be helpful I’d just mention it to a supervisor there,” he said. “I was hoping for a good citizen award. Boy, I didn’t get it. I was told in no uncertain terms I was to get with the program and get in line.”

He realized that sometimes curiosity is troublesome. A prime example is researching on the Internet. “Curiosity, ADD, and creativity have a lot of overlap. So you start going on the Internet, and you can spend your life there and not get anything done,” he said.

“Your curiosity and technical education will come together to make such a difference for millions of people.”

- Mark Kroll

It is an ironic precaution from someone who has spent his professional life exercising his curiosity to the max. A former chief technology officer of St. Jude Medical and an adjunct professor for the University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Kroll holds more than 350 U.S. patents, including more patents on medical devices than anyone one else alive. He has been associated with several start-up companies, either as inventor, technical advisor, or investor—from high-speed Internet for airlines, to medical devices, to a phone system for calling your dog.

For Kroll, curiosity is innate but is also honed through discipline and habit.

The first step is to read a lot. “I need to build up this pantry full of technology knowledge. You fill that pantry by studying a certain kind of technology in college, and by lots of reading. A lot of that reading is driven by curiosity,” he said.

To solve problems you need to be exposed to problems. At St. Jude, he was bombarded with problems—technical problems, manufacturing problems, marketing problems. It helped that he understood the context of problems and the relevant technology. “You start running through a list in your head—kind of like playing Bingo,” Kroll said. For example, if he just heard about a new material, he wondered how it might apply to a product such as a defibrillator. “Some of it is not even that clever,” he said. “It’s just a matter of doing it as your job.”

Curiosity not only lays the groundwork for problem solving; it almost compels it. As a frequent presenter, Kroll is often asked questions that leave him with that “deer-in-the-headlights” look because he hadn’t thought of that problem before.

“When I get on the plane, that’s when the curiosity takes over,” he said. He wonders why the problem exists and what he needs to know to understand it. He jumps on the Internet to research. “I can learn so much about that problem, and that’s driven by my curiosity,” he said.

Kroll says children develop curiosity in an environment that rewards it. His own kids grew up with a dad who developed patents. “They’d have a wild idea and they’d bring it to me and sometimes we would go and get a patent on it. I think that people can actually be encouraged to keep their eyes open. I’ve always said that the average person has got at least one million-dollar invention in their head,” he said.

From his perspective—27 years after receiving his Ph.D.—Kroll reassures engineering students that their curiosity lays the groundwork for a satisfying life. “Your curiosity and technical education will come together to make such a difference for millions of people,” he said.