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UNC professor Zijie Yan remembered as gentle mentor, loving father

Yan_ Zijie-2.jpg
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Applied Physical Sciences.

A note in Zijie Yan's oldest daughter's penmanship declaring "Zijie is my dad!" greeted visitors at his office door.

Monika Kataria, a postdoctoral research associate who worked in Yan's research group, said Yan would sometimes bring his two young daughters to the lab. She said his love for his daughters was obvious by the way he spoke to them. 

UNC senior Bergen Murray, who was in Yan's research group since her first year at the University, said she could often hear his children giggling in the background of their weekly Zoom meeting.

"Because of how gentle he seemed, I could tell that he was probably a really good dad," she said.

Murray said she joined Yan's research group with little experience, but he was always "very, very patient" with her. 

Kataria and Murray are two of the many students and researchers Yan mentored before his death on Aug. 28. Tailei Qi, a graduate student who worked with Yan, was charged with first-degree murder for his death.

Originally from China, Yan graduated from Huazhong University of Science and Technology before moving to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree, which he earned from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2011. He completed his postdoctoral studies at the University of Chicago in 2015 and became an assistant professor at Clarkson University. In 2019, he joined the UNC Department of Applied Physical Sciences.

Yan recently achieved academic tenure at UNC as an associate professor, and he led a research lab of postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students.

"He just wanted to educate people, to teach people and mentor people," Murray said. 

According to the Yan Research Group website, which has since been taken down, the group aimed to "transcend the boundary between photonics and materials science by developing new techniques to study light-matter interactions at the nanometer scale."

Yan used conditioned beams of laser light to control the movement and assembly of nanoparticles, Douglas Chrisey explained.

Chrisey was Yan's Ph.D. adviser at RPI and now teaches at Tulane University. He said Yan was his best student, not only because of his productivity but also because of his kindness.

Chrisey said Yan was a leader in his research area and was highly cited in journal articles, even before coming to UNC. 

He said that after they had both moved on from RPI, the two stayed in contact, writing to each other about every six months.

"Be assured, during his 17 years in the US he was treated as family by everyone who was lucky enough to get to know him," Chrisey said in a written statement. "His hard work, his creativity and his kindness will live on in all of us just as he would want it to. He was a great man whose life ended too soon."

Jenni Truong, a graduate student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, worked in Yan's lab when she was an undergraduate student at UNC. Truong said Yan was an excellent mentor and pushed each of his students beyond their creative boundaries to achieve their full potential. 

In addition to doing research with Yan, Truong also took one of the first classes he taught at UNC — a special topics course in nanophotonics. 

“You could see his face light up, smiling ear-to-ear, when he was teaching what he was passionate about and he would get so excited when we shared our own interests with him, asked questions, answered questions,” Truong said in an email.

Yan was not only a great colleague, but also an outstanding professor, researcher and mentor, Theo Dingemans, chair of the applied physical sciences department, said in an email. With his research program, Yan pushed the boundaries of nanoscience and contributed to numerous papers published in scientific journals, Dingemans added.

“Zijie would’ve wanted us to move forward in educating students and conducting research that would change the world, and we will honor his legacy by doing just that,” he said.

On Aug. 30, a candlelight vigil was held in the Dean E. Smith Center to honor Yan. More than 5,000 people attended, including members of Yan's family

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“Dr. Yan left this world a better place from his brilliance, his commitment and the lives that he affected," Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said at the vigil. "That’s a life well lived and a life ended far, far too soon.”

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