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People hold candles in the darkness at a memorial tribute to Zijie Yan in the Dean E. Smith Center.

A candlelight vigil drew more than 5,000 Tar Heels to the Dean E. Smith Center. (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Tar Heel community mourns the tragic loss of nanoscience researcher Zijie Yan.

As Carolina students, faculty and staff raised candles glowing with firelight, their fitting tribute honored the life of a brilliant scientist whose light was extinguished all too soon.

Headshot of Zijie Yan.
Zijie Yan was an associate professor of applied physical sciences. (photo by Steve Jacobs)

Zijie Yan, an associate professor of applied physical sciences, was shot and killed on Aug. 28 in his Caudill Labs office on campus.

A few days later, the community came together for a memorial chiming of the Bell Tower and a moment of silence, and mourners left behind flowers and cards in tribute to Yan. That night, more than 5,000 Tar Heels attended a candlelight vigil at the Dean E. Smith Center.

People from across the country also shared messages of support and solidarity for UNC-Chapel Hill.

Yan, who joined the UNC faculty in 2019, was working to transcend the boundary between photonics and materials science by developing new techniques to study light-matter interactions at the nanometer scale. He received a Ph.D. in materials engineering in 2011 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Speaking at the vigil, College Dean Jim White said one reason the grief and sorrow are so intense is because the community feels so connected to one another.

“The College of Arts and Sciences is a big place, and the University is even bigger, but these cherished connections that we have with colleagues, co-workers, classmates and friends are what make it feel small and special,” he said. “This bond, this looking out for one another, is perhaps our greatest strength.”

Theo Dingemans, professor and chair of the department of applied physical sciences, said Yan was “pushing the boundaries of nanoscience with his research program.”

But Dingemans added that what he truly wanted the community to remember was that Yan was a dedicated, teacher, mentor, colleague, son and father to two young daughters.

Flowers and cards cover the ground at the foot of the Bell Tower.
Mourners left flowers and cards at the Bell Tower. (photo by Jon Gardiner)

“Zijie was one of the kindest persons I’ve ever met. He was soft spoken — a great listener — and he had a wonderful sense of humor,” Dingemans said.

On Sept. 8, the Faculty Council passed a resolution in honor of Yan, which states that “his legacy will live on through all of us, the scholarship of his students and his significant contributions to science.”

It will be a long process of healing. General Alumni Association President and College alumna Veronica Flaspoehler ’08 acknowledged that and shared a message with alumni, writing: “At times like these, the term Carolina Family becomes evident and real. We are in mourning, but we will find our way ahead, together.”

Dingemans closed his remarks at the vigil by saying that even though department colleagues will dearly miss Yan, there is one thing he is 100 percent sure of:

“Zijie would want us to move forward. He would want us to keep educating students at this magical place. He would want us to keep doing research that will change the world.  And that is exactly what we’re going to do.”



Published in the Fall 2023 issue | The Scoop

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