Nan Yao is the director of the PRISM Imaging and Analysis Center at Princeton University, where he teaches courses in materials science and engineering in the undergraduate and graduate programs. After receiving a Ph.D. in applied physics and electron microscopy from Arizona State University where John M. Cowley was his dissertation advisor, Yao entered industry, first working at the Shell Development Company, then at the ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. He joined Princeton University in 1993 to help build a multidisciplinary imaging and analysis program, which has now become the largest central facility at Princeton and one of the most preeminent materials characterization centers in the nation. In 2003, Yao accepted a continuing appointment from the Dean of the Faculty as a Senior Research Scholar (rank of full professor) at Princeton University.
A fellow of the Microscopy Society of America, Nan Yao is among the top 15 most cited Google Scholars in the field of Electron Microscopy in both physical and life sciences disciplines (2014-15). He has been named as author of top 100 most read Nature Scientific Reports articles in 2015 (out of ~11,000 papers). Yao’s research has been focused on utilizing advanced imaging, diffraction, spectroscopy and in-situ techniques, in tandem with molecular dynamic simulation, to conduct fundamental studies of the structure-composition-processing-property relationships in complex materials for applications in nanotechnology, energy, environment and health. Yao has published 2 books entitled Handbook of Microscopy for Nanotechnology (Kluwer/Springer Publishers 2005, Chinese edition: Tsinghua University Press 2006, Russian edition: Springer Publishers 2011) and Focused Ion Beam System: Basics and Applications (Cambridge University Press, 2007). He has also authored 16 book chapters and more than 220 research publications in scientific journals, including Science, Nature, and many others. Yao is known for his many contributions including in developing the first 300 keV Environmental-cell Transmission Electron Microscope (1991) and on a theoretical explanation for the superior imaging resolution of scanning helium-ion microscopy over the scanning electron microscopy (2008).
Yao collaborates with scholars in the multidisciplinary research. After more than a decade of searching along with L. Bindi, P. J. Steinhardt and P. Lu, they discovered the first natural quasicrystal [Science 324, 1306 (2009)]. This discovery was cited in the 2011 Chemistry Nobel press release. Further, his co-discoverer, Bindi has been awarded the "2015 Presidente della Repubblica Prize", the highest national scientific award in Italy for this achievement. The discovery of natural quasicrystal has opened a new chapter in the study of mineralogy, forever altering the conventional classification of mineral forms established in the 19th century. This discovery has also opened a novel way of longitudinally studying metal alloy stability in pressure and temperature conditions not accessible in the laboratory. Yao’s work with A. Maloof, et al. resulted in the discovery of a 650 million-year-old sponge-like organism in 2010. The shell-like fossils represent the earliest evidence of such animal body forms in the current fossil record, predating previous evidence from about 550 million to 650 million years ago. This finding turns back the scientific world's clock by about 100 million years regarding when animal life first appeared on Earth. Together with D. Norris, they were invited to publish the opening paper in Nano Letters’ inauguration issue [Nano Letters 1 (1), 3 (2001)].
Nan Yao serves on the editorial boards of 10 professional journals and is on the research proposal advisory committee for NSF, DOE, NIH, NASA, two US National Labs (Oak Ridge and Brookhaven), the Austrian Science Fund, National Natural Science Foundation of China, and European Research Council. Yao has chaired nine international symposia and delivered over 30 invited lectures in recent years. He was a keynote speaker in the US R&D Magazine’s Research Lab Expo Conference in 2005.
Teaching also is Nan Yao’s prime directive. He created and directs a teaching program in materials characterization. He is an eight-time recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Princeton Engineering Council and the Princeton School of Engineering & Applied Science. In addition to the regular for-credit classes, Yao has also developed an outreach program by creating short courses and workshops in materials characterization, which are offered regularly and frequently, every month, and are open also to students from other universities and to industrial scientists, all free of charge. More than 3500 undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and industrial scientists have enjoyed their learning experience in Nan Yao's classroom at Princeton. He received the Outstanding Service Award in Preparing Science and Technology Leaders for the Future from the Siemens Foundation in 2011. The undergraduates he has mentored have won many national awards including Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellowship, Barry M. Goldwater National Scholarship, Fulbright Scholarship, Harvey Fellowship, LeRoy Apker Award, AFCEA National Grand Prize for Science, National Science Foundation Fellowship, National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship, Materials Research Society Student Award, Microbeam Analysis Society Distinguished Scholar Award, and five-times Microscopy Society of America Undergraduate Research Award, etc.
Having started his career as an industrial scientist, Nan Yao has since devoted himself to building stronger bonds between the academic and the industrial world. For more than 23 years at Princeton, he has personally connected over 700 industrial scientists from more than 100 companies by providing them with hands-on experience in materials characterization through his short course/workshop program and by facilitating joint collaborative research. Yao’s efforts have helped lead these industrial partners to many innovations and new product developments. Companies that have benefited from such collaborative education and research with Yao include Bristol‑Myers Squibb, Colgate-Palmolive, Dow Chemical, DuPont, ExxonMobil, GE, Henkel, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Sun Chemical, as well as many new startups. Nan Yao is accomplished at founding and managing complex central facilities under financial constraints and developing them as engines of innovation and economic growth. He carries a strong record of fundraising in both public and private sector settings, successfully raising capital to realize Princeton engineering’s strategic goals.