Tributes have poured into the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill following the shooting death of Zieji Yan, who was a nanoscientist and associate professor in the university’s Department of Applied Physical Sciences. PhD student Tailei Qi, a member of Yan’s group, has been charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm on educational property in connection with the incident on 28 August.

The shooting occurred in the early afternoon and the university was locked down for several hours as a result. In the aftermath, UNC quickly went into grief mode. The campus community took a moment of silence two days after the shooting, when bells in the university’s campanile were rung in Yan’s memory. Later that day, thousands of students and staffers attended a candlelight vigil in Yan’s honour.

“Friend to many”

Yan “was a beloved colleague, mentor, and friend to many on our campus,” said UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. The chair of Yan’s department, Theo Dingemans, added, “He was a great asset to the department and to the university. He was very kind and soft-spoken but also a great listener with a wonderful sense of humour,” he said in a statement. “Zijie was not only a great colleague, but he was also an outstanding professor, researcher, and mentor. With his research programme, he was pushing the boundaries of nanoscience, as evidenced by the numerous papers he had published in scientific journals. Zijie would’ve wanted us to move forward in educating students and conducting research that would change the world, and we will honour his legacy by doing just that.”

Yan held a PhD in materials engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was an assistant professor at Clarkson University before joining UNC in 2019. His research has the goal of “transcending the boundary between photonics and materials science, by developing techniques to control light-matter interaction.” His group’s research has involved the use of holographic optical tweezers to manipulate nanoparticles using shaped laser beams. It has implications for the use of nanoparticles on and within cells, for such applications as intracellular sensing, targeted drug delivery, and gene therapy.

Qi, the PhD student charged with Yan’s murder, joined Yan’s group last year. He has BSc in physics from Wuhan University and a MSc in materials science from Louisiana State University. According to his LinkedIn profile, he “works on the optically trapped nanoparticle arrays and all kinds of their related fascinating phenomena”. He recently wrote a paper on optical binding of metal nanoparticles with Yan in Advanced Optical Materials. No reason for the shooting has emerged, however, Qi had complained on X (formerly Twitter) about bullying and the behaviour of unnamed persons.

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