Yankai Cao


Assistant Professor

Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering

What is your educational and professional background?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in biological engineering from Zhejiang University in 2010, and my PhD in chemical engineering from Purdue University in 2015. Before joining UBC, I was a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Why engineering? 

At my primary school I learned that the large-scale production of penicillin and insulin saved millions of lives, which convinced me that science and technology are a primary productive force.

What are your research/teaching interests and current projects?

My research is focused on developing algorithms to solve large-scale optimization problems that arise in diverse decision-making paradigms such as machine learning, stochastic optimization and optimal control. My goal is also to make these developments accessible to academic and industrial users by implementing algorithms on easy-to-use and extensible software libraries.

Another aspect of my research is to apply the algorithms and tools to help collaborators address engineering and scientific questions that arise in diverse application domains including conflict resolution in energy system design, robust control of crystallization systems, predictive control of wind turbines, power management in large networks and image classification for contaminant detection.

How do you hope your work will impact society/students? 

I hope that my research will enable us to deal with problems that are of unprecedented complexity and defy the state-of-the-art algorithms.

How do you think the field of engineering will be different 100 years from now?

Energy will be very cheap (after breakthroughs in nuclear fusion).

Most of the jobs in the field of engineering will be done by smart robots.

I think many things mentioned in science fiction will become true.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in engineering?

I would encourage students to actively seek internship opportunities. I completed four internships during my PhD, and these experience enabled me to learn skills from experts in various areas and identify interesting applications. Therefore, I believe students will benefit from those opportunities as well. 

What is your favourite book?

The Three-Body Problem

Department/School profile