Yu Cao blends research skills and natural charm to connect with Alaska communities

Yu Cao
Photo by Jakob Sirevaag
Yu Cao is a postdoctoral fellow at ACEP.

February 21, 2024
By Yuri Bult-Ito

Yu Cao is a postdoctoral fellow at ACEP, focusing on energy transitions. 

Cao is currently working on two major projects. One is called “Environmental Justice and Equity Framework for Siting Nuclear Energy in America’s Arctic,” a Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy University Program funded project. It aims to create an environmental justice framework for future nuclear energy development in Arctic communities and other historically underserved populations in the U.S.

For this project, Cao finished compiling a literature review about reasons for communities’ mistrust of the state and federal governments and presented it at the Northwest Arctic Borough Energy Steering Committee Meeting last October. She will also be conducting interviews to capture the long-term perspectives of community members.

Her other major endeavor involves the Community Appropriate Sustainable Energy Security initiative. CASES’s goals include developing and applying energy planning tools to help northern communities enhance values and long-term capacity and strengthen community energy sovereignty. With her mentor and colleague Diane Hirshberg, Cao is working to build energy profiles of remote communities in Alaska, including Kotzebue, Galena and Arctic Village. Through field research, focus group interviews and individual interviews, the team aims to support these communities in articulating and reaching their short- and long-term goals for energy development.

“Yu brings a great blend of quantitative and qualitative research skills to ACEP,” Hirshberg said. “She’s also been a quick study on working in remote and Indigenous communities and has a great way of communicating research findings for a broad audience.”

Cao received her bachelor’s degree in law from Shanghai International Studies University. During her senior year, she attended Kent State University in Ohio and completed an M.A. in economics at the same time as the completion of her bachelor’s degree.

Because of her love of work by the late Michio Hoshino, a renowned Japanese nature photographer and author of many books on Alaska, who studied biology at UAF, Cao wanted to come to Alaska. She was enrolled in the Arctic and Northern Studies master’s program at UAF.

Cao then attended Northern Arizona University to further develop her M.A. work on corporate social responsibility, or CSR, and extractive politics. CSR is the idea that businesses have a responsibility to the society and environment around them, and extractive politics deals with environmental and ecological crises due to rising extraction, usage of raw materials and politics about the environment. Cao’s doctoral dissertation evaluated multinational mining companies’ CSR. 

Cao originally joined ACEP in 2022 as a research fellow through the Alaska Fellows Program during her last year of the doctoral program. Upon receiving her Ph.D. degree in political science in 2023, she transitioned to a postdoc position at ACEP.

Yu Cao at a research presentation
Photo by James R. Evans/UAA
Yu Cao explains her work to UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell during the 2023 Scary Scholars research showcase at University of Alaska Anchorage presented by researchers in costumes.

Cao says that ACEP is a great place to exercise her interest and expertise in extractive politics and energy justice and to have a chance to work with remote communities and Indigenous people in Alaska.
“I’m looking forward to seeing her take on even more of the social sciences side of the energy work and finding out what other hidden skills she may have,” Hirshberg said. “She’s got a great sense of humor and a willingness to jump into all sorts of activities. She’s a lot of fun to have on the team!”

In addition to her postdoc work at ACEP, Cao serves as a senior fellow with the Arctic Institute and an affiliate with the North Star Group, a consulting firm in Anchorage that works toward socially responsible and economically sustainable goals.

While she is a political science enthusiast and would love to connect with other political scientists, Cao also relaxes through activities such as cooking, felting and reading.