By the time this blog is posted, it will have been just over two weeks since we tragically lost a bright star among our faculty. I am devastated and saddened by the loss of our valued colleague, a brilliant scientist who was leading novel research in nanoscience.
Zijie Yan applied innovative, applied approaches to solving critical problems in medicine by using nanobots to work within cell structures to deliver precise and targeted therapies without damaging biological systems or cells. These types of nanotherapies are desperately needed in cancer, neurological and other debilitating diseases. His science and his many contributions will make the world a better place.
Yan was an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Applied Physical Sciences (APS). He joined Carolina in 2019 and had recently been awarded tenure. He was making impressive contributions to his field, within the department, and towards the University’s growing portfolio of applied science research.
He was recently published for his development of holographic optical tweezers, a technology that enables precise control and manipulation of nanoparticles using shaped laser beams. The precision afforded by these lasers has immense potential for practical applications in biomedicine, offering a less damaging solution to conventional techniques that can damage cells. As is typical of colleagues in APS, Yan was a true trailblazer conducting transformational science with potential to save lives, preserve health, and improve well-being for people with serious diseases.
Yan was one of only 12 full or joint faculty members within APS. And while that may seem small, these faculty have the talent to make significant impacts on a variety of industries, including health care (like Yan), energy, and materials science. The primary focus of the researchers in APS is on application – in the juncture between engineering and science – to discover innovative solutions to real-world challenges. As such, APS is a highly collaborative group that works on a diverse portfolio of interdisciplinary research. Their faculty members collaborate with researchers from other departments and schools to transform discoveries into designs, innovations, and applications.
APS is part of Carolina’s applied sciences and engineering research portfolio and is key to our strategic prioritization of innovations and applications that help solve the world’s greatest challenges. The department is also an example of our collaborative culture and our ability to work across disciplines to advance practical solutions with cutting-edge science – combining the tools of engineering with knowledge and discoveries across a variety of disciplines. To illustrate the kind of research that APS leads, below are three examples of APS faculty working on critical issues in applied physical sciences.
Wubin Bai is partnering with clinical researchers to design and develop next-generation disruptive bioelectronic systems. These new systems can solve critical medicine issues, leveraging polymer chemistry to create resorbable materials for surgery and biochemical sensing and dosing for proactive monitoring and therapeutics. He has forged a collaboration with Carolina neuroscientists working to develop precision medicine solutions to neurological disorders, and with other experts to devise innovative solutions for cardiac tissue damage, metabolic challenges of diabetes, and supports for successful tissue transplantation.
Similarly, Ronit Freeman has forged collaborations with clinical researchers to bring her specialty in the design of molecules and structural materials to create next-generation sensors, nano robots, drug breakthroughs, and clinical tools. She is working with a colleague in pediatric pulmonology to bring her skills and tools to design peptides capable of reversing lung fibrosis. She is also collaborating with colleagues in mathematics and pharmacy to create a computational model of virus transport through mucus to create novel barriers for inhaled pathogens. Ronit is making substantial contributions in the synergies between synthetic and living systems to identify solutions to pressing challenges.
Another example is APS department chair, Theo Dingemans, an interdisciplinary polymer scientist who designs novel polymers for functional and structural applications. He is working with environmental scientists and computational modelers to develop an innovative and affordable membrane-based water purification technological tool to remove environmental chemicals from drinking water. Importantly, Dingemans merges a collaborative culture with a priority for application, leading the department to forge new collaborations across campus to solve the world’s greatest challenges.
I know from my interactions with my APS colleagues and friends that they are committed to maintaining their mission towards creating materials, methodologies, and solutions that will have worldwide impact for decades to come. And they have our full support to do just that. I know that they were all deeply affected by what transpired last month. My thoughts are with all Professor Yan’s family and with APS faculty, staff, students, and friends as they process and move forward.
While this tragedy has impacted us all, our individual experiences are varied and diverse, including potentially being affected by another incident involving a firearm on our campus this week. It is a time for us to show our community’s commitment to one another. Please continue to extend patience and kindness, and please remember to take care of yourselves. Should you need resources devoted to helping yourself and others through trauma, the University has curated a very helpful website with advice from our campus mental health experts.