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When Vinod Sarin isn’t conceiving of a new surface coating, you might find him trying to grow orchids in his apartment. Those two activities aren’t totally disparate from one another in Sarin’s eyes, since plants provide him with endless inspiration for new ideas in his materials science lab. In honor of his creativity and relentless passion for innovation, Sarin, a School of Engineering professor of mechanical engineering and materials science engineering, has been elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

Bostonia: How did you first become interested in materials science and surface coating technologies?

Sarin: After graduating from high school in India, I entered my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin as a 17-year-old with no background, so to speak, in either science or engineering. My first materials science course led me to immediately switch my major from electrical engineering to metallurgy, which is the study of the physical and chemical behaviors of metals. Several years later, after graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with my ScD, I joined Sandvik in Stockholm, Sweden, where my first assignment was to improve and develop new wear-resistant surface coatings using chemical vapor deposition technology, a method commonly used to produce thin films.

You’re a prolific inventor, holding more than 80 patents. What are some surfaces you’ve encountered throughout your life that have provided you with the inspiration for (or frustration leading to) new ideas?

For me, the challenge lies beyond the surface, in the depth and understanding of the material within. Inspiration comes from nature (especially how plants—specifically flowers—develop and bloom), the exchange of ideas, and the will to never give up. My frustration comes from never being truly satisfied with my results—I am always striving for the next level or improvement and as a result, sometimes moving backwards.

If you had to choose only one material to work with from now on, which one would you pick? Why?

The application really determines the choice of material. Keeping that in mind, if I had to focus on one thing, it would be developing better transparent optical ceramic thin films to enhance the detection of breast cancer.

Let’s go beyond the surface (pun intended). What was the most meaningful (or the most challenging) moment of your career?

The most meaningful thing has been to pursue my passion for research and technology without sacrificing family time and all my other passions. I approach challenges with an open mind, trying to analyze and learn from my mistakes—to me, that and the desire to solve problems is the path to innovation.

These days many people feel like work mode is never turned off. As you hinted above, family is clearly important to you. How have you prioritized making time outside of your career?

We can all find time for what we consider to be important—the key is being flexible and not making all your decisions based on career optimization. My greatest passion—a notch above all others—are my three grandchildren, Maya (8 years), Nina (6 years), and Zian (4 months).

When you’re not with your grandkids or working in the lab, what else do you enjoy doing?

Photography, tennis, and trying to grow orchids.