Grad School, Ford and Autonomous Vehicles - Chatting with Arash ‘11

Rebecca Patterson '18

Currently attending University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Arash Ushani ‘11  is on his way to receiving a Ph.D in Computer Science and Engineering. We recently got the chance to catch up with him and talk about his life as a grad student.


What words of wisdom do you have for students contemplating grad school?
Math is more important than you think. Take math classes. Especially linear algebra. The more you can get under your belt beyond just the Olin requirements, the better.  Get involved in research. It might be hard to do exactly what you want at a small place like Olin, but seek out opportunities elsewhere, like summer internships at bigger universities.

Find opportunities that help you define specifically what you want to do in grad school. "Cool robots" is not specific enough; something like "localization algorithms for autonomous cars" is better. To do this, you should read papers, perhaps from lists of publications from labs that sound cool to you. Don't worry if it takes a long time to get through, or if you don't understand all of the material (even grad students go through the same things), but make an effort to try to understand what's going on. You'll be much better prepared for grad school (and not to mention a much stronger applicant) if you come in having a good idea of what you want to do.

Are you working while in school? Tell us more about where you work and what you do there.
I work in the Perceptual Robotics Lab (PeRL) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. ( I just finished my second year of grad school. I'm working on an autonomous vehicle project in a team across two labs and in collaboration with Ford Motor Company. Specifically, my research involves obstacle detection and tracking.


Three of the Ford Fusion NGV test vehicles

What is your typical day like?
Life as a grad student is a blend between being a software engineer and being a researcher. I spend a lot of my time developing code, testing, and debugging. This includes going out on our autonomous cars to drive them around and collect data. I also spend a lot of my time doing research - keeping up with the literature, identifying new research problems and trying to figure out how to solve them.

What do you feel you are doing that's innovative?
By definition, research is innovative - you're doing something that no one's done before, whether that's solving a new problem or finding a more efficient algorithm. Autonomous cars today are at the cutting edge of technology, and as a member of my team I'm helping to push the edge forward.

How have you made a difference in the world since leaving Olin?
I'm still a relatively new PhD student, so my research is just starting to get underway. But as a researcher, I'm already helping to advance the capabilities of what autonomous cars can do today.  Also, before I started grad school, I worked in industry for two years at Liquid Robotics. I was part of a small team that developed the WaveGlider, an autonomous ocean surface vehicle that is unique in its capabilities as a long-duration, environmentally friendly, robust platform for collecting ocean data.

Do you feel like your time at Olin helped you get where you are today?
I can't point to any specific classes or projects that prepared me for what I do now. Rather, it was the combined experience of Olin that not only helped me become a competent engineer, but gave me the confidence in my ability to adapt and learn new skills as I would need them. I feel my training will never be complete, but I am always ready to add to my toolset.

Do you have time for fun? What do you like to do?
I played on the Ultimate team for four years at Olin. While I haven't been able to reproduce the same dynamic that we as a team had at Olin, it still remains my biggest hobby today. I play my fair share of pickup games and the occasional tournament.

Posted in: Graduate School, Alumni Speak, Research