UW Graduate School

Morelle Arian

Morelle Arian overlooking Canon Sumidero, a kilometer-deep canyon in Mexico.

Morelle Arian overlooking Canon Sumidero, a kilometer-deep canyon in Mexico.

Doctoral student in Computer Science & Engineering


  • Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, University of Southern California
  • Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, University of Southern California

Morelle Arian is the one who almost got away — an extraordinary student whom the UW could have lost to another university.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in four years, on full scholarship. She did research in robotics and electrical engineering labs. She earned enough in two summer internships with Boeing to fund a gap year traveling in Central and South America.

Clearly, Morelle had her choice of graduate schools. She eventually narrowed her top two choices to Stanford and UW. “Frankly, it was a question of prestige versus a matter of culture and better fit in terms of research. Not that UW isn’t prestigious, but the name of Stanford carries a certain weight.”

Stanford would have offered more money, but Morelle’s first choice of advisor was at UW. Professor Shwetak Patel is widely renowned for doing visionary, innovative work.

Fortunately, at just the critical time, the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation reached out, making up the difference in funding. “So now it solely became a decision of which program was better for me, without the financial consideration.”

Morelle took this decision very seriously. To her, it wasn’t just a matter of entrance, but also of completion. “The Ph.D. program — many, many people don’t finish it, right?” Morelle acknowledges. “It’s really hard. You’re jugging research, classes, teaching and still trying to have a life and breathe. So it’s important to make the right initial decision.”

In fact, her biggest piece of advice to prospective students would be to check your motivations.

“It can be tempting to make decisions about graduate school for the wrong reasons,” she says. “Choose an institution where the culture is the right fit for you. Choose an advisor who can give you the right support and the right amount of hands-off-ness as well. The other people in the lab will be a key part of your happiness in the program. “

That happiness for Morelle is UbiComp Lab. She is currently working on a smartphone app called OsteoApp that calculates bone density. “You hold your smartphone in your hand and tap your elbow on the table. It measures the vibrations and the frequency response correlates with bone density.”

“Currently, bone density is measured using DEXA scans (a type of X-ray). You generally don’t get a scan until you have symptoms, at which point it’s kinda too late. But if you can catch it earlier, you can treat it. Osteoporosis obviously has to do with aging, but there’s also a genetic component. And having a non-invasive coarse grain test will improve people’s ability to get treated,” Morelle explains.

OsteoApp was announced as one of the first projects funded by Amazon Catalyst.

Morelle is no stranger to earning funding, but she says that being an ARCS fellow is a unique experience. The foundation matches students with individual donors, establishing a personal relationship.

Morelle is sponsored by Sarah and Andrew Watts, and she sits with them at events, where they discuss her research. Morelle feels genuine interest from them and says that in general, “ARCS donors seem really, really excited about our research. They’re actively engaged in learning what we’re doing and what impacts we, as researchers, want to have on the world.”

“ARCS seems to be this additional community of support,” she adds. “Even if it’s ‘life problems’ and not strictly funding issues, they’re there for you. Everyone in ARCS wants us to succeed.”

# # #