Driven to Discover flag on a light pole.

For CSE senior, undergraduate research paves way to grad school

Tyler Littmann reflects on ‘mind-blowing’ physics projects and classroom collaboration

In its simplest form, Tyler Littmann’s research is basically picking up and putting down really small things. Except “small” here refers to nanomaterials that are about a hundred times tinier than the width of a human hair.

Littmann is a University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering senior studying physics. He works in associate professor Vlad Pribiag’s experimental condensed matter lab in the School of Physics and Astronomy, where he builds electronic devices—such as semiconductors and switches for computer chips—that can only be handled looking through powerful microscopes. The research has applications to quantum computing, a field that uses properties of quantum physics to create smaller, more advanced computers.

“Working with Vlad’s group is probably the best thing I’ve done as an undergrad,” said Littmann, who grew up in Bloomington, Minn. “The fascinating part about it to me is that we can actually build something that small.

The quantum world is really mind-blowing. After working in the lab for more than a year, I still walk out of the lab every single day and say, ‘Holy cow, did we really just do that?’”

But physics wasn’t always Littmann’s passion. He came to the University as a freshman wanting to study aerospace engineering. That is, until he took his first physics class.

“My physics professor, Dan Cronin-Hennessey, had this eccentricity and passion for the field,” Littmann said. “And I thought, ’This is a field that I want to go into.’ That was the defining moment of when I decided to switch to physics.”

Littmann is graduating this May with an internship lined up at Skywater Technology, a company that makes semiconductors similar to the ones he makes in Pribiag’s lab. In the fall, Littmann will start a physics Ph.D. program at Penn State University.

His experience in Pribiag’s lab was a key factor in his decision to pursue grad school.

“With my ability to be in the lab and work so closely with the graduate students and postdocs, it’s almost like I get to play dress-up as a graduate student despite being an undergrad,” he explained.

“It made me realize that grad school was something I wanted to do, and that’s something I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t done research.”

While research helped him find his path, Littmann said one of the best things about his time as a Gopher was the sense of community and collaboration in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today without my classmates, faculty, and the graduate researchers and postdocs I’ve been working with,” Littmann said. “Whether you remember a formula from your freshman year or all you take away from your courses is F = MA (Force = Mass x Acceleration)—the ability to approach a problem, solve it, and work with a team is the skill that I’ll have no matter where I go. You can take classes anywhere, but I think the U of M is relatively unique in emphasizing collaboration and having students work together in groups.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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