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 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 and top 30 in Nanoscience (2012-13). His research has been focused on utilizing advanced imaging, diffraction, spectroscopy and manipulation 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 (Springer/Kluwer Publishers, 2005, Tsinghua University Press, 2006, Russian language edition, Springer, 2011) and Focused Ion Beam System: Basics and Applications (Cambridge University Press, 2007). He has also published 12 book chapters and a total of more than 200 technical publications in journals including Science, Nature, and many others. Yao is known for his pioneering work in developing the first 300 keV Environmental-cell Transmission Electron Microscope (1990) and on a theoretical explanation for the superior imaging resolution of scanning helium-ion microscopy over scanning electron microscopy (2008).
Yao also collaborates with scholars in multidisciplinary research. Together with D. Norris, he published the Nano Letters’ opening paper in its first issue in 2001. As a co-discoverer (with L. Bindi, P. J. Steinhardt and P. Lu) of the first natural quasicrystal after a decade-long search, his work was mentioned in the 2011 Chemistry Nobel press release. 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 other evidence by at least 70 million years. These findings turn back the scientific world's clock regarding when animal life first appeared on Earth.
Yao serves on the editorial boards of nine professional journals and is on the research proposal advisory committee for NSF, DOE, NIH, NASA, and two US National Labs (Oak Ridge and Brookhaven). 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 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 (2010-2013). 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 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 Microscopy Society of America Undergraduate Research Award (5 times).