This article was updated at 3:26 p.m., Sept. 6, 2023.
Just six days into the start of the fall semester, a UNC PhD student shot and killed an associate professor in the department of applied physical sciences on campus. No one else was injured.
Zijie Yan, whose research interests included optical trapping and manipulation, holography, microfluidics, electronic and photonics nanomaterials, was shot Monday in the Caudill Laboratories building, where students take chemistry, biology and other science courses. The building is adjacent to Wilson Library.
UNC Police have charged graduate student Tailei Qi, 33, with first-degree murder and possession of a weapon on educational property, both felonies. Qi is being held at the Orange County Jail without bail. Qi received a master’s in science in engineering from Louisiana State University in 2021 and was part of the Yan Research Group that worked out of Caudill Laboratories, according to University records.
UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement on Tuesday that Yan “was a beloved colleague, mentor and friend to many on our campus.” Guskiewicz added that he and his leadership team have “met with his colleagues and family to express our condolences on behalf of our campus.”
On Monday at 1:04 p.m., UNC Police sent a campuswide alert notifying people of “an armed and dangerous person on or near campus.” At 2:39 p.m., UNC Police sent a photo of a person of interest. In an email, UNC Media Relations warned students, faculty and staff, “If you see this person, keep your distance, put your safety first and call 911.”
Shortly thereafter, Qi was arrested. An all-clear message was sent via the University’s Campus Alert system at 4:14 p.m.
Classes were canceled Monday afternoon as well as for Tuesday and Wednesday. Other University events were cancelled Monday, including a Board of Trustees meeting to elect new officers. A candlelight vigil was planned for Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Pit to honor Yan. A moment of silence will be observed at 1:02 p.m. on Aug. 30, when the Bell Tower bells will be rung.
The initial alert advised students, faculty and staff to go inside immediately, close windows and doors and remain inside until further notice. UNC Hospitals as well as Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools were on lockdown.
Students across campus described the fear and uncertainty they felt during the lockdown. George Dismukes, a senior economics major from Greenville, was at Wilson Library on the second floor attending a career fair and talking with job recruiters when the alert was sent. “Overall, this was overwhelming,” he said. “I ended up being boarded up in the room for over two hours. Unfortunately, our room didn’t have locks, so I was standing by the back door trying to listen in the halls for any noise or movement.”
Dismukes was at the career fair with his friend, Vishal Bhagat, also a senior economics major from Greenville. “It was an overwhelming experience,” Bhagat said. “Once I got the message I looked around and all I could see was fear in everyone’s eyes. There was more fear in everyone when we saw the doors had no locks in our room. After finding out the shooting had happened in the building right next to us, people sat down in silence. I just stood there beside the back door with my friend, George, and we made a plan to charge the shooter if he walked through this door for the safety of others. We didn’t want to sit in silence and potentially let this shooter harm our classmates or us.”
Yan, 38, held a PhD in materials engineering from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in physical electronics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and dual bachelor’s degrees in materials science and engineering and computer science from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China. He did postdoc work at the University of Chicago from 2011 to 2015 and was an assistant professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, from 2015 to 2019, before joining the faculty at UNC in 2019. Yan lived in Apex and has two young children, according to The News and Observer.
“The Carolina faculty mourn the senseless loss of our colleague and friend, Dr. Zijie Yan,” said Beth Moracco, chair of the faculty. “Our hearts go out to Dr. Yan’s family, colleagues, students and loved ones during this difficult time.”
Board of Trustees Chair Dave Boliek Jr. ’90 said in a prepared statement, “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.”
At a press conference at The Carolina Inn on Monday evening, UNC Police Chief Brian James offered his sympathy to the UNC and Chapel Hill community. “I’m very sorry to be standing before you today under these circumstances,” James said. “It’s a day we train for but hope never comes. Please understand this is an ongoing investigation, and there are many questions we will not have the answers to at this time.”
He thanked the FBI and other agencies for their assistance and announced that Caudill Laboratories will be closed until further notice as evidence is being processed.
“We want to ensure that we gather every piece of evidence to determine what happened here today and why it happened,” said James, who was named UNC’s police chief in May 2022. “It is too early to know a motive for the shooting.”
Three first-years, a senior and a PhD candidate — all of whom sought shelter at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center, about a quarter of a mile from Caudill, after police allowed them to leave the building they were in — said they were unaware of what it meant when sirens began wailing across campus. The students, who asked not to be identified, said they hope the tragedy leads the University to teach active-shooter protocol to students and staff. UNC Police offers active-shooter drills to student groups, and the University promotes best practices for active-shooter situations in a mandatory first-year orientation, which includes emergency preparedness and understanding the Alert Carolina system, a UNC official said.
At the Monday press conference, Guskiewicz told students he was sorry the incident happened and nothing was more important “than the safety and well-being of our community members and certainly our nearly 30,000 students are at the top of that list alongside our faculty and staff.”
— Laurie D. Willis ’86 and Cameron Fardy ’23