The Earth’s surface is approximately 71 percent water, and the oceans hold the vast majority of that water. And yet, there is so much that remains unknown about the oceans. Ocean engineer Dr. Grace Young, a 2017 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is working to better our understanding of the deep ocean. She has been involved in projects that include testing submersibles finding new ways to map coral reefs, working on robots that help monitor climate change, and combining underwater imaging and artificial intelligence to advance sustainable aquaculture. That is a lot of different ways to get to know the Earth’s oceans even better!
Being on, and in, the water has long been a large part of Grace’s life. While an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she was a member of the sailing team for four years. In 2016, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for charity. The ocean has figured prominently into other aspects of her life as well. She tapped into her artistic side when she put together an exhibition of slow-motion underwater photography.
Young was one of six aquanauts selected for “Mission 31” led by Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. One purpose of the mission was to study the effects of climate change on the oceans. In 2014, for 15 days, Young lived and worked in an undersea lab called Aquarius in the Florida Keys built by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The big difference between living in an underwater habitat like Aquarius and a submarine is that Grace and her fellow aquanauts’ bodies are fully saturated to live and work freely at the same atmospheric pressure that exists on the seabed. This allows them to spend eight to twelve hours a day on research dives outside the habitat, whereas a normal SCUBA dive at that depth can only safely last about 45 minutes. Young and the other aquanauts designed and conducted experiments related to climate change, adapted a new high-speed camera for underwater use, and led daily virtual classroom sessions with K–12 students worldwide.
While Grace’s work has primarily been about the ocean, her accomplishments have been applied to other areas as well. She has developed software and robots for different organizations including MIT, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), NOAA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA. These organizations have worked to monitor marine ecosystems, study the health of endangered species, and make 3-D maps of the ice near the oceans to better understand climate change. Grace’s degrees in mechanical and ocean engineering from MIT and in engineering sciences and zoology at the University of Oxford helped prepare her for this work.
Grace is currently the lead scientist for Tidal, an initiative of Alphabet’s “moonshot factory” X, that aims to protect the ocean while feeding humanity sustainably. (Alphabet is Google’s parent company). She also serves as chief scientist for the Pisces VI deep sea research submarine which is planning an expedition to Antarctica next year.