Professor Zijie Yan was identified as the faculty victim in a deadly shooting that sent the UNC-Chapel Hill campus into lockdown on Monday. He was the academic adviser of suspect Tailei Qi, according to a university web page.
Yan was an associate professor in the department of applied physical sciences, where he focused on nanoscience technology. Qi, a second-year doctoral student who was taken into custody after Monday’s shooting, worked closely with Yan’s research group at UNC since early 2022. Police said the incident happened in a lab on campus.
Yan and Qi co-authored research papers in recent years on the effect of light on nanoparticles. Yan’s recent work focused on something called “optical tweezers,” a process using light aimed at developing advanced nanorobots within cells, according to an article on the applied physical sciences department’s website.
“This loss is devastating and the shooting damages the trust and safety that we so often take for granted in our campus community,” UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said during a press conference Monday evening, during which authorities didn’t identify the victim. “We will work to rebuild that sense of trust and safety within our community and our hearts are with the family of our fellow faculty member, those who are personally connected to the victim and those traumatized by this senseless act of violence.”
Yan joined the faculty at UNC in 2019 after stints as an assistant professor at Clarkson University and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago, according to a university bio. He earned his PhD in materials engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
‘Always very quiet’
Qi was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting, which happened shortly after 1 p.m. Monday. Attempts to reach Qi were unsuccessful.
“To actually have the suspect in custody, it gives us an opportunity to either figure out the why and even the how and also helps us to uncover a motive and really just why this happened today,” UNC Chief of Police Brian James said.
Qi holds a master’s degree from Louisiana State University and a degree from Wuhan University in China.
“I would have never guessed that he would be the kind of person who could possibly be capable of this kind of thing,” said Aiden Scott, a UNC graduate student and former classmate of Qi who was working on a project with him. “He was always very quiet.”
“Every single time he would talk to me, he seemed very nice,” Scott added. “When I saw his face in the reports online, I was beyond shocked,”
Social media posts by Qi mentioned bullying in America and loneliness, with one post insisting he’d like to make some new friends.
Canceled classes, ongoing investigation
UNC canceled classes for the rest of the day Monday and for all day Tuesday. University administrators also sent an email with resources for students, faculty and staff.
Meanwhile, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies continued to investigate the motive and search for evidence. James said authorities were still searching for a firearm in connection to the shooting. They were also trying to determine whether the firearm was legally obtained. The lab where the shooting occurred was closed as police collected evidence.
“We want to ensure that we gather every piece of evidence to determine exactly what happened here today and why it happened,” James said at the news conference. The investigation was expected to continue for several weeks.