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 Ph.D. 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 preeminent imaging and analysis 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 20 most cited Google Scholars in the field of Electron Microscopy and top 40 in Nanoscience (2013-14). His 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 two 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 13 book chapters and more than 200 technical publications in journals such as 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 multidisciplinary research. As a co-discoverer (with L. Bindi, P. J. Steinhardt and P. Lu, 2009), of the first natural quasicrystal after a decade-long search, his work was mentioned in the 2011 Chemistry Nobel press release. 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. Finding a natural quasicrystal is also a novel way of studying metal alloy stability over a long existing time in pressure and temperature conditions not accessible in the laboratory. His 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, he published the Nano Letters’ opening paper in its inauguration issue in 2001.
Yao serves on the editorial boards of ten professional journals and is on the research proposal advisory committee for NSF, DOE, NIH, NASA, two US National Labs (Oak Ridge and Brookhaven), and European Research Council. Yao has chaired or co-chaired eight international symposia and delivered over thirty 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 is a three-time recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Princeton Engineering Council (2007-2009), and has been named three times to the Princeton Engineering Commendation List for Outstanding Teaching (2010, 2011, and 2013). In addition to the regular for-credit classes, Yao has also initiated an outreach program by creating short course and workshop programs in the field of characterization of materials. More than three thousand five hundred undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and industrial scientists from over thirty universities and sixty industrial companies 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.