Aaron Sander was part of the first cohort attending the Master in QST program. Staying in Munich was not planned; however, Aaron made the most of the local ecosystem to foster his curiosity and passion for quantum physics.
Right Place at the Right Time: Master’s in QST in Munich
Aaron Sander only planned to stay in Munich for one summer. After finishing his freshman year at a university in the United States, he got a summer internship in Munich developing automotive sensing hardware. But in the middle of his internship he received devastating news: his tuition was increasing, and returning to college for a second year would be more expensive than he could afford. Wondering what his next steps could be, he had a realization: he was now living in a country with excellent, tuition-free universities. “So,” he says, “I basically decided to stay in Munich.”
The deadline to apply for the next semester at LMU had already passed, so he wouldn’t be able to start immediately. Thankfully, he could already speak German, and was able to continue working at his internship until starting his Bachelor’s in Physics. He was relieved to be able to continue his studies, but his new program wasn’t without its fair share of challenges. Unlike graduate studies, which are often conducted in English, most Bachelor’s programs at LMU are in German; although Aaron’s German was already advanced, it took a while to adjust to lectures fully in a foreign language. He forced himself to maintain a laser-focus during lectures, worried that if he missed a single sentence, he’d lose the thread and not be able to follow the rest of the talk.
“Everybody I meet has an interesting story. If you come from another country to study here, you’re not going to be alone. There is a huge international community, and that’s part of the culture here.”
Steadily, he settled into his new academic environment and city. “Munich is a great city to end up in,” he says. “There’s always plenty going on.” And with so many booming industries with employees from over the world, he was in awe of the people around him: “Everybody I meet has an interesting story. If you come from another country to study here, you’re not going to be alone. There is a huge international community, and that’s part of the culture here.”
Aaron’s scientific interests were also shifting. In the US, Aaron had been studying electrical and computer engineering, but a couple of lectures on quantum technology had piqued his interest. At LMU he started “trying out” different areas of physics to try to figure out where he wanted to go next, but he found himself always drawn back to quantum. As he neared graduation, he was considering a couple of different options for Master’s programs, but, almost by accident, he came across an unfinished page on the TUM website. This page advertised the then-brand-new Master’s in Quantum Science and Technology (QST). Reading the sparse information available, he already knew that this program was the one: “I knew I was in the right place at the right time to do this, and I might as well just do what I want to do.” He applied and was accepted into the very first class of the Master’s in QST Program, and would start in the fall of 2020.
Lectures in Lockdown
The weekend before lectures began, Aaron met up with a few fellow incoming QST students. The very next day, the lockdowns of late 2020 went into effect. Aaron and his whole class would have to attend all of their lectures online. Remote learning made the program more difficult for Aaron than it otherwise would have been – it was hard to study effectively being home all the time, and he wasn’t able to easily meet up and discuss coursework with other students. But he made the best of the situation, and was happy to be in an outstanding program: “I thought the lectures were really good – the peak of the field. There’s no place better than Munich for these things. There’s no textbooks for them – it’s coming directly from the professors’ interests and research.”
"I thought the lectures were really good – the peak of the field. There’s no place better than Munich for these things. There’s no textbooks for them – it’s coming directly from the professors’ interests and research.”
One of the highlights of the Master’s program was participating in the Quantum Entrepreneurship Lab (QEL), a project-based course that connect students to companies in Munich and tasks them with developing their own quantum product, as well as a business plan to support it. At the end of the course, students pitch their startups to a panel of experts. He found the program to be very unique: “Typically you don’t get that kind of experience in deep tech as a student,” he says. Aaron’s project was based on preventing power outages with E.ON – a company that manages energy infrastructure in Europe. His pitch was using quantum computers to help analyze and organize the grid to reroute power in case any part of the grid goes down. A quantum computer, capable of solving very large problems that conventional computers cannot, could be used to analyze the entire grid all at once, allowing workers to examine not just whether a single power line is likely to fail, but rather entire neighborhoods and cities. Aaron was so enamored by the QEL that he is now one of the students helping organize subsequent years of the program.
Aaron had written his Bachelor’s thesis on tensor networks, so when the time came to begin the research phase of his Master’s program, he wanted to continue in that direction. He approached MCQST Member Christian Mendll, shared what he’d learned in his courses so far, and Mendl created a Master’s thesis for him, allowing Aaron to work independently within the group. “I was able to take it in whatever direction I wanted,” Aaron says, “and he was always supportive and helpful.” For his thesis project, Aaron is simulating noise in quantum computers. These simulations help researchers develop more robust quantum computers, which are very susceptible to external interference – or “noise.”
A Long Way from Home
Despite the obstacles he faced in his Bachelor’s program, and having to start his Master’s program during one of the most difficult periods of the pandemic, Aaron remains motivated. “I like understanding how the world works,” he says, though he admits that’s the answer almost all physicists give to explain why they do what they do. From a young age, he had always been interested in computers, tech, and the underlying science that drives them. His family encouraged him to pursue higher education, but the path he needed to take wasn’t always clear – nobody else in his family had gone to college. Luckily, growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, many of his friends’ parents worked for the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Through them, he discovered a roadmap to higher education.
Aaron knew he wanted to stay in Munich after earning his Master’s degree. Though his initial decision to study in Munich was born of necessity, he has never regretted the decision to move here to pursue physics. In fact, he believes a leap of faith can be a great career-starter: “In your early career, you are less likely to have things tying you down. Be willing to make risky moves – don’t always just sit where you’re from,” he says, reflecting on the uncertain path that led him to where he is today. Aaron’s next step is now clear: in 2023 he will start a PhD in the group of Prof. Robert Wille at the Chair of Design Automation at TUM, and he is excited to remain where he is. “There are certain cities like Munich that are very well-known for quantum, and where there’s a lot of investment. If I had stayed in Tennessee, I probably wouldn’t be doing this right now.”