'Wonderful human being': Colleagues remember UNC professor Zijie Yan who was killed in shooting

Wednesday, August 30, 2023
'Wonderful human': Coworkers remember UNC professor killed in shooting
Dr. Zijie Yan, who was a father to two young children, was remembered as a "beloved, colleague, mentor, and a friend to so many" on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Hundreds of University of North Carolina students gathered in front of the Student Union on campus Tuesday night.

The place known as The Pit was flooded with students wanting somewhere to light candles and express their emotions.

One student, a junior who wanted to be identified only as Melvina, said she felt compelled to attend the vigil.

"It's been heavy around campus. Physically mentally and everything else we have experienced," she said. "It's sad that that this happened on our campus but this is also a reality for us especially growing up."

Hundreds of University of North Carolina students gathered in front of the Student Union on campus Tuesday night.

Tori Dellaperuta, a student and member of the women's soccer team, laid flowers at the Bell Tower.

She had walked past the genome building right before the deadly shooting of Dr. Zijie Yan, an associated professor happened Monday.

"I think we're just very lucky it wasn't more than what it was, we're lucky to have each other, we're connected well as a team," Dellaperuta said. "We felt the support and love of each other, just prayers go out to the family."

She said the soccer team will wear black wristbands in Yan's honor for Thursday's game.

"We're here for them, this is a community we're all a part of. If anybody needs anything, the women's soccer team is here for you," she added. "We're against this and we don't stand for it and just to let everyone feel they are a part of this community as well."

Earlier Tuesday, friends and colleagues shared tributes to Yan, who was shot and killed Monday inside Caudill Labs.

A UNC graduate student is charged with killing Yan, his academic group leader, inside a laboratory on campus.

"Zijie was a wonderful human being. And I also know his family, so as a father as well. I start with that because it was indicative of how he interacted with people," said Dr. Norbert Scherer, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, where Zijie underwent his postdoctoral training.

Yan earned multiple degrees at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China before coming to the United States, where he earned his Ph.D. in 2011 at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York. In a Facebook post shared with the university's Material Sciences and Engineering Community, Department Head Professor Pawel Keblinski wrote in part: "He is remembered fondly by many of us that met him in the classroom, lab, or in the hallway of MRC. Among other things, he distinguished himself with publishing 17 journal articles in the course of his Ph.D. study."

After Rensselaer, he went to the University of Chicago, where he quickly earned the respect of colleagues.

"Zijie absolutely as a young scientist was certainly on a great trajectory to become a dominant person in his field," said Scherer.

Another postdoc fellow who worked alongside Yan remembered him as "a great researcher, always positive, smiling, and full of new ideas."

"You should understand his pedigree. He starts in material science and has kind of a chemistry, material science background. Works in my group, I'm in chemistry, but he did optical physics. He ends up at North Carolina in the applied physics department," Scherer said.

Scherer and Yan stayed in touch after he became a professor, first at Clarkson University in New York, and then at UNC.

"He was great at interacting with other people in the research group, and mentoring younger people, students, and other postdoctoral (fellows) who came along," Scherer said.

Yan headed the Yan Research Group at UNC, with a stated major goal of transcending the "boundary between photonics and materials science by developing new techniques to study light-matter interactions at the nanometer scale."

On Tuesday, members of the university community laid flowers outside Caudill Labs and the Bell Tower.

"He was a beloved, colleague, mentor, and a friend to so many on our campus, and a father to two young children," said UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and he added that university leadership has been in contact with Yan's family. The university will ring the Bell Tower at 1:02 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon in honor of Yan.

Classes will remain canceled on Wednesday before resuming Thursday. However, Caudill Labs will remain closed as the investigation continues.

READ MORE: 'Bit traumatized.' UNC students cope after a deadly day on campus

"I feel the same anxiety that I believe the students and faculty, other community members feel. The fear of not being able to send our children to school and not worry about them having to face senseless gun shootings," said Congresswoman Valerie Foushee, a Chapel Hill native and UNC graduate, who represents the district.

In a statement on behalf of the UNC Board of Trustees, David L. Boliek Jr., chair of the board said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Yan family, especially his two young children, and our faculty, staff and students.

"The Board of Trustees stands in support of recovery efforts as the campus community finds its way forward. We are committed to providing the necessary resources to the professionals on campus who provide mental health and other support services to the university community, as well as public safety efforts to support and keep the campus safe. We want to thank Chief James, our entire public safety team, and the other law enforcement agencies who followed the plan and moved swiftly and decisively to secure the scene and restore safety and order to our campus. This is a time for healing and solidarity, and we remain committed to both."