Grace Young: An ocean engineer dedicated to the exploration and conservation of the seas
Grace Calvert Young was born in Ohio (USA) in 1993 and at 12 her family moved to Washington DC. She loved being in, near, or on the water and she learned to sail and SCUBA at relatively young age around the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. During her childhood she combined her love for ballet and robotics until she began studying Mechanical & Ocean Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She spent 15 days living underwater in Mission 31 at the Aquarius habitat, becoming the youngest aquanaut woman until now. Last year was named one of the 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers. She is currently writing PhD thesis at the University of Oxford developing 3D modelling techniques to study and protect coral reefs and she is the chief scientist in the construction of the deep-sea submarine Pisces VI.
Aquanaut is any person who remains underwater, breathing at the ambient pressure for long enough for the concentration of the inert components of the breathing gas dissolved in the body tissues to reach equilibrium, in a state known as saturation. Usually this is done in an underwater habitat on the seafloor for a period equal to or greater than 24 continuous hours without returning to the surface.
Aquarius habitat is one of three undersea laboratories in the world dedicated to science and education. Aquarius was owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is dedicated to the study and preservation of marine ecosystems worldwide, educational outreach, technology development and professional training.
A rebreather is a breathing apparatus that absorbs the carbon dioxide of a user’s exhaled breath to permit the rebreathing of the substantially unused oxygen content.
How did you get interested in science and technology?
I always enjoyed math in school, but it wasn’t until my high school started a robotics program that I was exposed to engineering. I was a freshman in high school at the time and the first girl to join the program. It was a revelation. I learned to design, build, program and operate my own robots and took to engineering like a fish takes to water.
And how did you get interested in oceans?
I grew up around the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay. I learned to sail and SCUBA at relatively young age and loved being in, near, or on the water. The more time I spent and learned about aquatic ecosystems and wildlife, the more I came to appreciate the ocean’s critical role in supporting terrestrial life.
In which moment did you combine both passions?
When I got to MIT. I left high school early and didn’t really know what to expect. When I realized MIT had an ocean engineering program, I knew I’d found the perfect home to combine my passion for the ocean and engineering.
You almost become a professional ballerina, why do you choose engineering and oceans over ballet?
It was a tough choice. I love ballet and the arts and devoted countless hours to training from a very young age. If you’re serious about a career in ballet, however, it is hard to carry a full academic load because the training demands become more acute as you get closer to a career decision. I managed both for a long time, but after joining my high school’s robotics program, I found myself thinking about my robot all the time, even while at the ballet barre. I began spending all my spare time in the robotics lab and realized it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. I also learned from other ballerinas-turned-scientists (there are several! more than you might think!) that ballet is great training for a science career because it combines discipline with creativity. I still love ballet, but mostly as a spectator now.
At 17 you leave school to study Mechanical & Ocean Engineering at MIT, how was your experience?
It was fantastic, although I didn’t know what to expect because I hadn’t planned to apply early. I visited MIT for a science fair competition and they encouraged me to apply early. Then I submitted my application at the last minute. When I arrived as a freshman it was daunting — students and professors from around the world and everyone so engaged. I had to push myself and I discovered the importance of collaboration. In high school, I was accustomed to studying by myself. At MIT, it’s essential to study in groups, which really made the learning experience not only more effective — you learn and accomplish so much more as a team — but much more enjoyable. There are also so many other activities at MIT beside science and technology. I joined the sailing team as soon as I arrived on campus and, in order to stay involved in the arts (and get free press passes to the Boston Ballet and other cultural events!), I joined the staff of The Tech student newspaper as an arts writer, so my overall experience was truly fantastic.
During your studies at MIT you participated in Mission 31 living underwater for 15 days and becoming the youngest female aquanaut until now, what it was like to live under the sea for so long?
I’d return in a heartbeat. Our team trained carefully for the Mission 31 so we were prepared to make the most of our time on the sea floor, and to deal with anything that might go wrong. Living as an aquanaut underwater is different than living on a submarine, although many people confuse the two. As an aquanaut tour body is saturated with nitrogen, so you can essentially spend as much time in the water as you need. We could spend up to 12 hours a day in the water instead of the 45 minutes we’d get on regular SCUBA. That makes a huge difference in what you can learn and accomplish. It also meant that we felt like we became a part of the marine ecosystem, along with the goliath groupers, rays, and other wildlife. As much as I missed family and friends, it was bittersweet to leave the Aquarius habitat after 15 days.
At Mission 31 you adapted for underwater use an ultra-high-speed camera developed by MIT engineers for on-land use, did it work?
Yes, the Edgertronic worked great. We had to design and build a special case for it to operate underwater, but it worked and captured some extraordinary images that had never been seen by the human eye.
I read you celebrate your graduation at MIT under the sea, is it correct?
Yes. Mission 31 was postponed from the fall to late spring, so I knew I’d miss my graduation ceremony. MIT graduates have a tradition of «flipping the brass rat» (turning over their class ring which depicts a beaver as the school’s mascot) at the culmination of the graduation ceremony. I was undersea on a dive at the moment; but a friend let me know the exact time my classmates were flipping their rings so I could join them from underwater.
After you were graduated at MIT, you still researching in SCUBA technology… talk us about your work with rebreathers.
Rebreather technology allows you to dive deeper and longer than regular SCUBA, so it allows you to do more doing underwater research. Our Oxford team was the first from the UK to use rebreather technology for research. It takes a lot of specialized training and you have to be extremely careful. You are brining all the breathing gas you need with you and must stay calm under pressure.
Your thesis is focus in develop underwater 3D modelling techniques that you applicate to help monitor and protect coral reefs, how do you do that?
Reefs are hotspots of biodiversity in the ocean, and we know one reason why they’re able to sustain so much life is that they’ve unique 3D geometries. I developed a method for rending 3D modeling coral reefs from photos that divers collect. My team and I, through Oxford and the organization Operation Wallacea, then 3D modeled several reefs around the world and studied how reef geometry predicts fish abundance.
Recently NASA become interested in your 3D modelling to applicate it in spatial exploration, how did you feel? How was the experience working on that?
Working on the NASA project at its Frontier Development Lab was another unique experience. It was an accelerated eight-week research project involving 24 scientists recruited from around the world broken into six teams, each with a specific research objective. Each team member was selected from a different discipline, so it we all learned from each other and contributed our own expertise toward achieving a common objective within a very short period of time. It was another example of the importance and effectiveness of collaboration.
So, a technique developed to help better understand, conserve and manage ocean’s resources finally could be applicated to explore space, do you think are we choosing properly our research priorities such a society?
That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It bothers me that we spend so much more on space exploration than on ocean research when 95% of the ocean, which comprises most of Earth’s surface, remains unexplored and largely unknown to us. I certainly don’t begrudge the spending on space, but not enough resources are devoted to ocean research. It is the ocean that distinguishes Earth from any other rock in space. It is the ocean that sustains human life, producing more than 50% of the oxygen we breath, regulating our climate, and feeding billions.
Even I think you speak about that in your TEDx talk “Why we know more about the dark side of the moon than the depths of the ocean”
That’s true. We know life as we know it depends on the ocean, yet we know little about it. We know the ocean is suffering from effects of pollution, overfishing, warming, and CO2 emissions it can no longer effectively absorb; but we don’t know enough of these effects and how best we can use technology to fix and remediate.
Last year you were named one of the 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers, what it has meant to you?
It’s meant a lot. Of course, it’s a big honor; but for me the two biggest things it’s meant to me is that I’m part of a community of people dedicated to exploration and conservation and that I have another outreach platform to speak to students around the world and inspire them to learn more about the ocean and get involved in conservation efforts.
What are you doing now?
Quite a few things… I’m involve in a variety of ocean research projects while also serving as chief scientist for the Pisces VI deep-sea submarine project which hopefully will make deep-sea research more accessible and affordable for the broader scientific community.
As an engineer, what do you think are the challenges of oceanography in the future?
One reason why the ocean remains largely unexplored is because its so inhospitable for human biology. Our bodies cannot sustain the pressure beyond a scratch on the surface, it’s pitch black dark, communication is extremely difficult, etc. But new advances in robotics and imaging technologies are opening the deep sea to exploration. We’ve only scratched the surface so far, but I can see exciting advances in deep sea discoveries in the coming years.
At least in Spain, there are very few women studying ocean engineering, do you think there is a lack of top female models for both boys and girls?
Maybe; but it needn’t be the case. Sylvia Earle, the legendary ocean explorer is a great inspiration to me, and I know many other women now involved in ocean research. We’re still underrepresented in the field, but hopefully that’s changing because there’s a lot of talent young women that we need in the field.
Many people speak about you as the next Sylvia Earle, how you feel with that?
Sylvia Earle is incomparable; there can never be a next. But she’s definitely a role model for me and many other women. To be mentioned in the same sentence as her is an awesome honor. If I have even a small fraction of her success in inspiring young people and educating policymakers to make the right decisions to conserve the ocean, I’ll be very happy.
Have you encountered obstacles in your career because of being a woman?
Not really. I’ve found the world-wide scientific community to be extremely collaborative.
Finally, what would you say to women and girls who feel inspired by your work?
It’s a great time to consider a career in science and technology. We need your talent. Many of our society’s most pressing environmental issues are beyond the capacity of governments and politicians to fix. Increasingly, the world must rely on technological solutions and that will require as much talent the human race can deploy. Right now, women make-up only a small fraction of the world’s engineers. That’s a lot of untapped talent that we need to solve big problems if we’re to sustain life as we know it on Earth.