Yann Robert Chemla

Yann Robert Chemla
Yann Robert Chemla

Primary Research Area

  • Biological Physics
(217) 333-6501
161 Loomis Laboratory
Associate Head for Undergraduate Program
(217) 300-8159
229 Loomis Laboratory

For More Information


  • Ph.D., Physics, University of California-Berkeley, 2001


Professor Yann Chemla received his PhD. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. Trained as a condensed matter experimentalist, he developed an interest in biophysics through his study of magnetotactic bacteria and his development of a magnetic nanoparticle-based biosensor. Prof. Chemla completed his transition to biophysics as a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Carlos Bustamante’s laboratory at Berkeley. There, he trained in single-molecule methods, using optical tweezers to study DNA packaging in viruses. He joined the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2007. He is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and a Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, and was named Fellow of the American Physical Society. Since 2015, he has served as co-Director of the NSF Physics Frontiers Center (PFC) the “Center for the Physics of Living Cells” (CPLC).

Research Statement

The living cell is a remarkable “factory” of complex molecular structures that carry out specialized mechanical tasks and act like nano-scale machines. These molecular machines are involved in a wide range of biological processes, from faithfully copying the genome to propelling cells. Broadly speaking, the Chemla group is interested in understanding the mechanism by which these machines operate, interact with other cellular molecules, and are regulated. One area of focus is the proteins that process and maintain genomic DNA.

Our lab uses powerful biophysical techniques to follow these processes one molecule at a time, avoiding the averaging artifacts of traditional ensemble methods. Optical traps—or “optical tweezers”—which utilize the force generated by focused laser light to manipulate microscopic objects, allow us to follow the trajectories of individual molecules in real time and measure the forces they generate.

Research in the Chemla lab involves developing new methodologies and, enabled by these advances, making scientific discoveries. Examples include the developments of high-resolution optical tweezers to detect the Ångström-scale motion of proteins on DNA and of combined optical trap-fluorescence microscopy to investigate conformational dynamics in a DNA processing machine. Our group has further extended these approaches to study the fusion of subcellular protein condensates, cargo transport inside the cell, and the dynamics of individual swimming bacterial cells.

Members of the Chemla laboratory work on all facets of research in this area: design and construction of state-of-the art instrumentation, investigation of biological systems using single-molecule manipulation methods, and quantitative analysis and modeling of collected trajectories. Interested students and postdocs with backgrounds in physics, biology, chemistry, or related fields are welcome to contact me.

Selected Articles in Journals


  • American Physical Society Fellow (2020)
  • Dean's Award for Excellence in Research, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2016)
  • University of Illinois Willett Faculty Scholar Award (2015)
  • Center for Advanced Study (2012)
  • Sloan Research Fellowship (2010)
  • NSF CAREER Award (2009)
  • Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI), Burroughs-Wellcome Fund (2005)

Teaching Honors

  • Arnold T. Nordsieck Award (2022)

Recent Courses Taught

  • PHYS 102 - College Physics: E&M & Modern
  • PHYS 110 - Physics Careers
  • PHYS 211 - University Physics: Mechanics

Semesters Ranked Excellent Teacher by Students

Spring 2020PHYS 102
Fall 2018PHYS 211
Spring 2017PHYS 427
Fall 2016PHYS 427
Spring 2012PHYS 427