It was at Northwestern University, where she earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering, that she first applied principles of industrial ecology, including life-cycle assessments, focusing on the tools to improve energy efficiency and reduce chemical pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of chemicals and fuels.
In her research now, Yao integrates advanced modeling methods from engineering, environmental science, natural science, and data science to quantify the environmental and economic implications of industrial technologies. Those implications can support decision making for efficient utilization of natural resources and sustainable production of materials and products. She has been leading collaborative projects related to biofuel and bio-based materials derived from forest resources, green chemistry technologies, and circular economy in different industrial sectors. Through those projects, Yao says, she has developed an active engagement with different universities, industry, government, and non-profits.
Last year, she received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award
(CAREER) for research
that uses artificial intelligence approaches to better predict potential uses and performance of biochar — a carbon-rich solid produced in the conversion of organic biomass — and strengthen the sustainability of its usage across the food-water-energy nexus.
“Traditionally, agriculture, water, and energy systems are managed independently,” she said. “If we want to achieve a more sustainable and efficient utilization of natural resources, we need to manage them simultaneously and use a nexus approach… Since biochar can be used in all of those threesystems, it presents a unique research area that can be very beneficial for the entire world.”
In addition to the research piece, the biochar project — which Yao will continue at Yale — will include online education and professional training opportunities for underrepresented students in order to introduce them to sustainability principles and STEM-related career fields. Yao has been dedicated to developing online educational materials to engage with diverse student populations and enhance the public literacy of sustainability.