On Monday, August 28, 2023 at 1:02 pm, the UNC-Chapel Hill community lost a member of the research faculty, Dr. Zijie Yan. Dr. Yan joined the UNC faculty in 2019 and was an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences. His group’s work focused on nanoscience technology, with the larger goal of “transcending the boundary between photonics and materials science by developing new techniques to study light-matter interactions at the nanometer scale.”
Zijie studied at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China before pursuing his PhD at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York, during which he published 17 journal articles. Following his prolific graduate training, Yan continued his postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago in 2015. He published 15 peer-reviewed papers with his postdoc mentor, Dr. Norbert Scherer, who remembers Yan as a brilliant and thoughtful scientist “on a great trajectory to become a dominant person in his field.” His mentors and colleagues describe Yan as passionate about his work, a dedicated father who loved to cook and go fishing, and the kind of person who devoted his time to helping budding scientists develop. Mentors recall that during his training, he was “aggressive about his work, but never competitive or political” and diligently practiced patience with the students he mentored. His smile and unwavering positivity were formidable, and they are among the things that all those who knew and loved him will miss the most.
We, the graduate students on the board of the UNC Science Writing and Communication team, which publishes The Pipettepen, stand in solidarity against gun violence with the grieving community of UNC-Chapel Hill, the surrounding Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities, and all those affected by Monday’s events. Firearms on campus, active shooter alerts, senseless loss of life in the places where we work, learn, and live; these are not normal, nor should they be treated as such. This should not and does not need to be our reality. It is not normal for our physical and mental health and well-being to be threatened every day. Our hearts are with the victim’s family and with the students, faculty, and staff of UNC, and their family members who are in need of support during this difficult time.
The reports gathered on the events of August 28 thus far provide evidence that the event was a targeted attack. However, much of what led up to the tragedy and many of the conversations that followed are part of much larger issues that need to be addressed if we have any hope of preventing another tragedy on this campus or anywhere else:
The Necessity of A Standard Protocol For Active Shooter Threats
It is disheartening to believe that as a society we are at a point where standard protocols for active shooters on-campus are necessary. Despite campus leaders Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek praising the implementation of a campus-wide response protocol following the alert, many students in both undergraduate classrooms and graduate seminars were failed by their leadership. One interview by abc11 quoted an undergraduate student who experienced their professor continuing to lecture for the remainder of the class period. Several other students reported that some professors continued to teach past the designated lecture time. Many graduate students and postdoc trainees were also seated in seminars at the time of the alert, with no action from their respective leadership to enact shelter-in-place protocols or to even pause routine activities to address the crisis of a gunman at-large. In another building, doors remained unlocked and accessible despite a campus-wide lockdown, prompting several graduate students to contact leadership and maintenance. Although no further related injuries on campus have been reported at this time, a clear, enforced, evidence-based, university-wide standard procedure could save lives during an active shooter scenario. Such safeguards would help maintain a sense of faith and trust in leadership to ensure student, staff, and faculty safety. The University can and must do more to ensure that Departments are aware of and will carry out the protocols if and when needed.
Addressing the Root Problem (and Solution): Policy
As scientists, we want to understand the causes of gun violence and take an evidence-based approach to prevention. Approximately 100 people are killed every day in the US from gun violence. Americans are roughly 10 times more likely to be killed by firearms than in any other high income country. Eighty percent of gun deaths in the 23 highest income countries occur in the US.
A recent meta-analysis investigating the causes and prevention strategies in reducing gun violence revealed several evidence-based strategies that could be helpful in preventing shootings.
- States that have more restrictive gun laws have lower rates of gun violence. Evidence-based restrictions to guns have been shown to reduce firearm injury.
- Banning open carry is associated with a decrease in fatalities and gun violence-related healthcare usage.
- Access to guns for youth is associated with higher odds of physical aggression and future violent behavior. Reducing access may be helpful in preventing future gun violence.
- Childhood experiences with domestic or community violence, including bullying, is a risk factor of gun violence. Childhood violence prevention, such as anti-bullying policies, may reduce future gun violence.
- Substance abuse is also a risk factor for gun violence, so evidence-based policies that reduce drug abuse may also reduce gun violence.
- Gun violence is highest in areas of the country with high economic inequality (i.e., high poverty paired with high median incomes) and in places where institutionalized racism has resulted in racial segregation and concentrated disadvantage. Addressing systemic inequality of this sort would likely reduce gun violence.
In other words, gun violence is not an impossible problem to deal with. The rest of the wealthy, industrialized, comparable-to-the-US countries do not have the problem of gun violence to the extent that we do in the US. Several American states have passed policies that result in lower gun-related deaths relative to other states. Many evidence-based policies that would reduce gun violence are in fact popular with the public. As with many issues, we do not suffer from a lack of effective solutions to the problem of gun violence, we suffer from a political system that fails to enact the policy decisions we need.
We also need more funding for research on the topic of gun violence and its prevention. For decades, the NRA-backed Dickey Amendment prevented the CDC from investigating gun violence as a public health problem. Even now, the amendment continues to prevent the CDC from advocating for any policy that may be construed as “advocacy of gun control,” a broad label that often includes evidence-based interventions to reduce gun violence.
In a similar vein, many states currently have physician “gag laws” that limit physicians from discussing guns as a health risk factor with their patients and advising them on gun safety. Medical organizations have argued that these laws are a threat to the free speech of physicians, prevent them from delivering high quality healthcare to their patients, and exacerbate gun violence.
Increased Resource Allocation for Graduate Student Mental Health
The suspect in custody has been identified as Tailei Qi, a second-year PhD student in the Applied Physical Sciences Department and member of the Yan research group since 2022. No motive has been determined at this time, however, several sources are citing evidence of Qi battling with loneliness and bullying in recent months and struggling with the demanding high-pressure environment of a PhD program and the research environment. Qi’s actions and his unforgivable behavior is not excusable nor can it ever be justified. However, acknowledging the difficulties and pressures faced by graduate and doctoral trainees, especially international trainees, is essential in evaluating what can be done for other students who find themselves compromising their mental health in academia. Over half of PhD students face psychological distress due to factors like financial insecurity, high pressure research environments, large and continuous amounts of work that often interfere with family and social requests, poor work-life balance, intense competition with other candidates and peers, enduring high demands with little control over the ways to achieve them, uncertainty of future career prospects and funding opportunities, and isolation by-design of insulated lab ecosystems.
Vulnerability of International Student Mental Health
It is important to acknowledge that international graduate trainees face additional challenges that can add to the already stressful nature of pursuing a PhD:
- International trainees often pursue their studies far from family, friends, and community; all essential support systems that are key for one’s well-being and success. Establishing a new community in a foreign country with cultural nuances is challenging and can add additional stresses to trainees’ experiences.
- English may not always be the first language of international trainees. Research alone is difficult and demanding, however many trainees are additionally tasked with conducting exceptional work in a language with which they are still becoming familiar with. Beyond the English language itself, subtle norms and implicit expectations comprise a “hidden curriculum” international trainees are assumed to learn.
- Extra academic pressure is often experienced by international trainees as failing coursework or examinations may jeopardize academic standing, which carries consequences for visas and thus their legal status in the United States.
- The majority of training grants available for graduate students require that applicants be either US citizens or permanent residents, which excludes international trainees from applying for many funding opportunities. Increased barriers to accessing funding can create additional pressure for international trainees and could raise tensions when discussing funding with their supervisor or department.
- Job opportunities after degree completion are significantly more limited for international trainees and are constrained to a designated authorized working period. Furthermore, international graduate students seeking approval for work authorization after degree completion rely on the approval and signature of their thesis advisor for visas, even after graduating.
We acknowledge the various challenges, pressures, and obstacles that graduate student trainees of various disciplines and backgrounds face. Students should feel secure and supported in their educational and training environments. Although UNC offers resources for wellness and mental health, it is apparent that the current services are inadequate for the demand especially considering the events that students have faced in recent years including the COVID-19 pandemic, protests and demonstrations, the rise of student suicides on-campus, and an active shooter event.
We urge the University to prioritize the mental health of all members of the student body and campus community, including graduate students who face unique and nuanced pressures and students of diverse backgrounds. Services must be widely available, financially accessible, culturally-conscious, and serve students in a manner that is not only reactive but proactive to students’ needs.
Formal Reporting and Conflict Resolution Mechanisms
Studies have found that faculty-student interactions are “the strongest predictor of graduate degree completion.” The combination of graduate students having minimal job control and significant job demands often result in poor mental health outcomes. Though institutions encourage students to report incidents of mentorship malpractice or research management misconduct, no formal system is in place to ensure that trainees have options to seek conflict resolution resources or come forward without jeopardizing their future careers. Furthermore, many students who find themselves seeking to switch research environments are discouraged by prolonging their studies in the process. In many cases, compliance is the easiest option.
The “publish or perish” model (i.e., academic career success often requires many publications in high quality journals) which the current academic framework is built upon, rewards scientific output at any cost – including the well-being of both students and faculty. The existing mechanism of professional recognition incentivises overworking trainees, encourages competition at the expense of cooperation, and fails to reward compassionate mentorship that serves diverse student populations. Faculty mentors are often underprepared to effectively resolve conflict or manage people as these essential skills are often overlooked for scientific aptitude. Trainees find themselves in a vulnerable position as they are reliant on their supervisors for funding, career development, and degree progress. This tightly-integrated relationship can have severe consequences for both parties should there be tension.
Departments across the academic system, including those on UNC’s campus, are severely unequipped to effectively mediate such conflicts while protecting both students and faculty. Considering the events that could have built up to Monday’s incident calls us to emphasize the dire and immediate need for the development of formal systems within each respective graduate department to ensure:
- Formal required training in conflict resolution and people management for faculty mentors and trainees.
- The establishment of an anonymous, unbiased, and action-based formal reporting system for research management misconduct.
- Investment in resources for personnel designated per department to mediate conflicts in research mentor-mentee interactions as needed. These individuals should be embedded within their respective departments to understand the nuances of its operations, but should not be a faculty member to ensure impartiality in interventions.
Racial Profiling and Denouncement of Anti-Asian Sentiments
It is essential to discuss and address the racial profiling and hatred that has emerged from this tragic event. During the active investigation, an individual who loosely matched the description of the perpetrator was arrested. Although it is true that enforcements were on high alert at the time, this type of racial profiling can carry severe consequences for the mental health of the misidentified individual and all other members of the Asian and Asian-American communities.
Furthermore, following the release and circulation of the perpetrator’s photo online, there has been a concerning rise in reports of anti-Asian hate rhetoric and anti-immigrant rhetoric directed at members of the Asian community. This type of divisive dialogue is painful, harmful, and counterproductive to the process of healing which is desperately needed especially during a time when our community is collectively suffering.
This statement has been written collaboratively by the SWAC board (names presented in alphabetical order):