On Monday, a shooter at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill killed Zijie Yan, a materials scientist and associate professor in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences. Yan’s research focused on developing metallic nanomaterials that can be assembled or manipulated with light to induce binding. He became interested in this area while a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago.
“Even though Zijie was a postdoctoral researcher in my group, I thought of him as a close colleague with whom I could share and discuss ideas . . . without barriers,” Norbert Scherer of the University of Chicago writes in an email. He recalls working with Yan to make sense of an unexpected behavior of gold nanospheres in a nanowire experiment: they tended to assemble in an orderly way. The phenomenon, which Scherer compares to “swarming bees that are only transiently deterred by swatting at them,” turned out to be due to light-induced binding, which Yan later exploited to develop new materials.
Yan was an assistant professor at Clarkson University before joining the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill in 2019. He earned his PhD in materials engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, working with Douglas Chrisey, who remembers him as “a beautiful person,” an outgoing colleague, and a devoted father.
“Zijie was a great scientist and with very kind heart,” writes Ying Bao, an associate professor at Western Washington University who worked with Yan when both were postdocs.
The shooting took place in the university’s Caudill Laboratories, a building that also houses many chemistry labs. The campus was locked down for hours. Tailei Qi, a PhD student in Yan’s lab, was arrested off campus on suspicion of shooting Yan. He was jailed on Tuesday on charges of first-degree murder and possession of a gun on educational property.
The wider chemistry community reacted with grief and concern. Polymer chemist Emily Arndt posted on X (formerly Twitter), “It’s a testament to the UNC Chemistry program that I’m pretty sure every single chemist on here has a first degree connection to that department. And we’re all hurting today.”