Dr. Nan Yao, a fellow of the Microscopy Society of America, is the founding director of Princeton’s preeminent Imaging and Analysis Center. His scholarly contributions to microscopy and materials science include the co-discovery of the first natural quasicrystal, a finding that has revolutionized the science of natural crystal chemistry. Yao is an eight-time recipient of the Commendation for Outstanding Teaching and Excellence in Teaching Award at Princeton University.
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 a world-leading materials characterization center at Princeton. In 2003, Dr. Yao accepted a continuing appointment from the Dean of the Faculty as a Senior Research Scholar (rank of full professor) at Princeton University.
Yao’s research has 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 respected for his many contributions in the field including in developing the first 300 keV Environmental-cell Transmission Electron Microscope (1991) and developing a theoretical explanation for the superior imaging resolution of scanning helium-ion microscopy over the scanning electron microscopy (2008). Yao is among the top 20 most cited Google Scholars in the field of Electron Microscopy in both the physical and life sciences disciplines (2015-16). He has also been recognized for authoring among the top 100 most read Scientific Reports articles in 2015 (out of ~11,000 papers).
Yao collaborates with scholars in multidisciplinary research. Together with L. Bindi, P. J. Steinhardt and P. Lu, after more than a decade search, they discovered the first natural quasicrystal, an extraordinary breakthrough that was cited in the 2011 Chemistry Nobel press release. Furthermore, in recognition of this achievement, his co-discoverer, Bindi was awarded the "2015 Presidente della Repubblica Prize”, the highest national scientific award in Italy. Yao’s transmission electron microscopy results provide conclusive evidence of crystallographically forbidden icosahedral symmetry in a naturally occurring phase and provide the key to extraterrestrial natural quasicrystal discovery [Science 324 (5932), 1306 (2009)]. In 2015, they reported the discovery of the second quasicrystal of any kind found in nature, a novel natural quasicrystal with decagonal symmetry [Scientific Reports 5, 9111 (2015)]. The discovery of natural quasicrystals open a new chapter in the study of mineralogy, forever redefining the conventional classification of mineral forms established in the 19th century. The natural quasicrystals, made from meteorite samples formed about 4.5 billion years ago, could answer basic questions about how materials were formed in our universe. This discovery also opens a new way of longitudinally studying metal alloy stability in pressure and temperature conditions not accessible in the laboratory. Yao’s another work with A. Maloof, et al. resulted in discovering a 650 million-year-old sponge-like organism [Nature Geosciences 3 (9), 653 (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. This finding turns back the scientific world's clock understanding when animal life first appeared on Earth by about 100 million years. Together with D. Norris, Yao was invited to publish the opening paper in Nano Letters’ inauguration issue [Nano Letters 1 (1), 3 (2001)].
Yao serves on the editorial boards of 12 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, Science Foundation Ireland, 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.
Yao’s prime directive also involves teaching. He created and directs a teaching curriculum in materials characterization. He is an eight-time recipient of Commendation for Outstanding Teaching and the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Princeton School of Engineering & Applied Science and Princeton Engineering Council. He is also a recipient of the Outstanding Service Award in Preparing Science and Technology Leaders for the Future from the Siemens Foundation in 2011. In addition to regular for-credit classes, Yao has also developed an outreach program through short courses and workshops in materials science, which are offered monthly 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 Dr. Yao's classroom at Princeton. 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, Dr. 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. Dr. 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.