Jixuan (Edie) Yao has always loved pure theoretical math or physics. But keenly aware that 70 percent of women in her home country of China work, she listened to other people’s advice to choose a college major more conducive to finding a job. She studied actuarial science at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, about five hours by high-speed train from the small city of Linzi where she grew up. As an undergraduate, Yao completed an internship with a large insurance company in Shanghai — and realized it wasn’t for her. The highly regulated field would offer her a nice salary but little creativity. Instead she applied to Cornell University’s master’s program in applied economics and management, where her research focused on crop insurance. “Doing research is so creative,” she says. “It confirmed that I wanted to do a PhD.” She landed on agricultural economics after searching for her own interests amid faculty research expertise on several U.S. universities’ websites. Yao began doctoral work at Purdue in 2016 under the advisorship of Michael Delgado, associate professor of agricultural economics.
Yao’s research focuses on modeling social and market dynamics. She develops mathematical representations of topics linked by her interest in household behavior and protecting the environment: if California residents choose to adopt solar panels because their neighbors do; whether governmental policies and imperfectly competitive market structures impact automotive firms’ production of all-electric vehicles; and how social pressures influence fertility decisions in rural China. She based the latter study on data that indicates female offspring are valued less in her culture than male: “I don’t want to argue,” she says. “I’m more willing to use solid research to convince people this phenomenon exists in a silent but powerful way.”
Yao has taught Mathematical Tools for Agricultural and Applied Economics, a core component of the department’s MS program, “to rave reviews! for multiple years!” notes Nicole Widmar, professor and graduate program chair. “For me it’s fun,” Yao says. “My role is to fill a gap for master’s students by teaching them all the math knowledge you need to learn to write a thesis. It’s a type of summary class — one semester, but a lot of content.” She also has attended several large economics conferences in the past year, and credits Delgado for encouraging her to wait until she had research to present to gain the most from the meetings.
“I used to worry a lot whether I could find a job,” Yao says. “My advisor encouraged me to focus on what I really like and be confident.” She intends her next step to keep her in academia, in a postdoc or faculty position. “I have enjoyed my time at U.S. institutions, including Purdue and Cornell, but regarding my next job location, I also appreciate places with cultural differences,” she says. In her spare time, Yao is an avid hiker who looks forward to exploring the mountains of China each summer. In her limited time, she also occasionally watches movies and especially enjoys suspense.