Xi Yang

Xi Yang

Visiting Scholar, Harvard-China Project
Associate Professor, China University of Petroleum Beijing
Xi Yang
Researcher Spotlight (first published in 2020): As a college student hailing from Nanjing, China, Xi Yang was up to something a bit atypical for a young woman at the time, but so familiar in other circles. “Like every Silicon Valley boy,” says Yang, a visiting scholar at the Harvard-China Project and associate professor at China University of Petroleum Beijing, she was “dreaming of having the best algorithm.” That fixation on excellence took Yang to several contests for her energy systems models, where she always seemed to have the best of everything—the technology, the algorithm—but one thing stumped her. It was just as the 13th annual conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was wrapping up when a judge asked, “How does this technology contribute to society and meet community demand?”

That question stuck with Yang throughout her bachelor’s degree work on electronic information and engineering at Tsinghua University and then at Mines ParisTech for a master’s degree in advanced energy management before returning to Tsinghua for doctoral work. That research was also in management, but with a slightly different focus. Yang conducted her research at the Institute of New Energy Technology. 

Now, at the Harvard-China Project, Yang collaborates with senior economist Mun S. Ho to expand her research to capture social impacts in her energy modeling through examining regional impacts upon population segments of differing incomes. Yang asks, “How does technology influence behavior and the public’s energy use?” At the same time, she is also developing models of natural gas distribution and demands for and use of hydrogen produced with renewable power, intersecting with interests of other researchers in the Project including Chris P. Nielsen and Prof. Michael B. McElroy. Yang has welcomed the crossover with scholars from different disciplines and the opportunity for boundary-pushing feedback as afforded through her role at the Project. Her colleagues sometimes pick up on nuances that Yang had not prior considered. “Researchers here are very open-minded, shar[ing] their opinions on interdisciplinary topics,” she says. “That’s very inspiring for engineers.” 
Still lodged in her mind are that judge’s words from her early forays into energy systems modeling. She constantly seeks to humanize her data and ground-truth what she meticulously crafted on the computer—sometimes deep into the night, she says, when she feels inspired. “I’ve always cherished every cold winter night when I’m debugging.” As such, she adapted her modeling to account for actual energy demands. “We are doing modeling trying to simulate the real world,” she says, “But people’s behavior, they just impact [us] the most.”  
Looking to the future, Yang hopes to keep searching for technological solutions for a zero emission society while here. She says, “Besides the precautionary principle, it is scientists' job to provide solid proof that is accessible for all." Yang hopes to improve how we model our way forward.

(Written by Liza Tarbell)

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