Published: 02.09.08
Fulbright scholarship for Harvard degree

High accolade for ETH Zurich talent

For the first time, the prestigious Fulbright Award has gone to an ETH Zurich graduate. Physicist Peter Maurer will embark on a five-year doctorate at Harvard University in Boston specializing in “quantum optics”.

Samuel Schläfli
From Hönggerberg to Boston: The first Fulbright scholar from ETH Zurich, Peter Maurer, and his professor Andreas Wallraff.
From Hönggerberg to Boston: The first Fulbright scholar from ETH Zurich, Peter Maurer, and his professor Andreas Wallraff. (large view)

It was a huge disappointment two years ago when physics student Peter Maurer’s dream of studying in the United States was shattered due to the lengthy admission process and tuition fees for an elite university of up to 50,000 dollars per semester. It is all the more reason why he was so delighted when the American embassy in Bern informed him in October 2007 that he had been accepted to the Fulbright Scholar Program. The first ETH Zurich graduate ever to receive the scholarship, 25-year-old Peter Maurer was granted the Fulbright Science and Technology Award.

The scholarship means he will receive a free pass for a five-year doctorate at an American university, meaning that he is exempt from all tuition fees and will be given a living allowance. “A Fulbright scholarship and the award in particular isn’t only attractive financially; above all, it’s a personal accolade that is highly regarded among scientists”, explains Andreas Wallraff from the Laboratory of Solid-State Physics, where Maurer wrote his dissertation on “State Tomography of Multiple Qubits in Circuit QED”. He is one of 40 graduates worldwide to be selected for the award in a lengthy selection process that spanned several months.

Commitment and experience the prerequisite

Maurer applied for the scholarship in the spring of 2007 after learning about the Fulbright Program on the heels of a “Swiss Youth Research” (SJF) award from the Swiss Academic Foundation. “I had never even heard of Fulbright before and I think the same goes for most of my fellow students, too. It’s a pity that the scholarship isn’t more well-known at ETH Zurich”, says Maurer. He and Wallraff put down why he should be chosen to “represent the richness and diversity of his home country”, as it says on the Fulbright homepage, citing Maurer’s commitment and hands-on experience. Maurer completed several internships during his degree studies, including spending three months working in Oxford, completing an internship at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart and also taking part in competitions like “Swiss Youth Research”.

Once he had been accepted into the Fulbright program, Maurer was at liberty to decide on to which university in the US he wanted to apply for a doctorate. He short-listed five before eventually whittling it down to Princeton University in New Jersey, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) , and Harvard University in Boston. Last winter, he visited the three universities. “I particularly wanted to do my PhD in quantum computing, like my dissertation with Andreas Wallraff, and Harvard offered me the best opportunity in this field”, says Maurer explaining his decision. He will be joining Mikhail Lukin’s research group there to research “nitrogen vacancies” in diamonds. These are basically tiny defects in the diamond structure that can be induced with lasers and which some day might be used in quantum computing. The field of research coincides with Wallraff’s work on nanocircuitry in the technology used and the underlying physics.

Intercultural exchange on a high level

Maurer is not worried about suffering “culture shock”. On the contrary, he is looking forward to discovering the subtle differences between Europe and America. Andreas Wallraff, who himself worked at Yale University in New Haven for four years after his doctorate, speaks very highly of his time in the United States: “What makes the elite universities so special isn’t the enormous amount of money they have but rather the fact that you meet interesting researchers from all over the world.” He is particularly appreciative of the informal exchange between the various sciences and arts. Wallraff has always considered the chance to study for a doctorate overseas as an opportunity to dissipate mutual prejudices and encourage intercultural understanding, as indeed was J. William Fulbright’s aim in founding the Fulbright Exchange Program.

According to the scholarship regulations, after his five-year sojourn Maurer will have to leave the United States for two years. On which side of the Atlantic he then opts to pursue his academic career, however, is still written in the Stars and Stripes.

The Fulbright Exchange Program

The Fulbright Program awards scholarships to students, researchers and teachers for further education, research or teaching activities. It facilitates exchanges between the United States and over 180 countries. According to its founder and former US Senator J. William Fulbright, “Fulbrighters” should promote knowledge, visions and mutual understanding between cultures. More than 50 permanent commissions worldwide support the work of the Fulbright Program on a cross-national plane. Every year, over 4,500 people take part in programs lasting one or several years. Since its foundation in 1946, Fulbright has assisted over 280,000 scholars, 100,000 of whom have come from the US and the remaining 180,000 from other countries. The “Fulbright Science and Technology Award” goes to 40 outstanding university graduates from all over the world each year and carries with it a grant for a five-year doctorate at an American university of one’s own choice.