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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Grace C. Young: An Aquanaut Charting the Sea’s Unknowns

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers. Ocean engineer Grace C. Young is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest...

Photo courtesy Potomac School Robotics

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Ocean engineer Grace C. Young is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

Grace C. Young discovered a love for the sea on sailing trips during a “nomadic” upbringing across Ohio, Michigan, and the Washington, D.C. area. Now, the ocean engineer is studying coral reef structures and developing imaging systems to help monitor them. In 2014, she spent 15 days living nearly 20 meters (66 feet) below sea level off the Florida Keys as part of Fabien Cousteau’s Mission 31.

She’s helped build robots that map ice shelves and survey endangered species. Now she is working with a startup to build the first full-face dive masks that let people talk to each other underwater, and pursuing a PhD at Oxford University in London. Regardless of what she does beyond that, Young says, it will be something involving technologies that help us understand and manage the ocean: “I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life, probably.”

How did you get interested in what you do?

I grew up sailing, swimming and diving in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m happiest by the water. I’m absolutely fascinated by its mysteries and potential.

What is it about coral reefs in particular that interests you, and why are they important?

Oh, there are so many reasons. People have estimated that reefs are worth up to $30 billion to the world economy. And about half a billion people around the world depend directly on coral reefs for their livelihood, either through receiving their primary protein source from coral reefs or from tourism.

But in addition to that—and to be honest, what I’m more motivated by—is just the esthetic beauty in reefs’ structure and function. They take up less than .1 percent of the ocean floor, but they host at least 25 percent of all marine life. They’re like the cities of the ocean.

Can you describe what it was like to live under the sea for so long? What memories stick with you the most?

My strongest memory is sitting at the kitchen table in the Aquarius habitat and sipping a cup of tea, looking out the viewport and seeing eagle rays swimming past, and live grouper making eye contact with us at the kitchen table. I felt like I belonged in the ocean. We as humans had become marine mammals. Being an aquanaut is like being an astronaut. You really are in an alien world.

Some think that the ocean is this silent world—that phrase we’ve heard—but it is noisy. You hear either boats above or you hear fish nibbling on the reef, nibbling on their food, you hear sometimes the sound of your bubbles. It’s a very noisy place. And sound travels faster underwater, so even sounds that are coming from miles away, you hear them as if they were right next to you.

Grace under pressure. Photo courtesy University of Oxford Thinking Deep Expedition

Can you talk about the technology we currently useto understand the ocean and what problems you are trying to solve there?

Broadly, I work on technologies that help us better understand and manage the ocean. Specifically what I’m working on right now is underwater imaging systems. We need ways to better see and learn from marine ecosystems. To better see structures from the perspective of animals of different sizes and also see the reef—not just visually, but also see nutrient flow around the reef, how pollution flows around the reef and how that affects the overall ecosystem. How sound echoes across the reef, because many, if not most, marine animals see not with their eyes but with their ears, with sonar. We want to understand the reef from that perspective as well.

What is it about the ocean that draws scientists to study it?

We know more about the dark side of the moon than we do the depths of the ocean. Also more people have been into space than have lived underwater. While there’s so much left to explore, the ecosystems are changing rapidly. A lot of the ecosystems in the ocean will be either dramatically changed or have disappeared within the next several decades. So our window of opportunity for learning from those ecosystems is becoming very small and shrinking every day. I’m motivated to explore ocean ecosystems too because I know we don’t have a long time to see them as they’re thriving.

That seems to suggest a bleak view of where we’re headed. Do you see a chance for us to make a difference, and how could your work connect to that?

My research has applications in designing artificial reefs. We’ve learned that our best way forward isn’t necessarily to perfectly mimic coral reefs because we just can’t do that with technology. Instead, we have to figure out what we can best replicate using man-made structures undersea.

That said, change doesn’t have to be bad. But we are seeing reefs increasingly shift from being more algae-covered instead of coral-covered. They have less fish on them. Perhaps we will develop ways to harvest algae and plankton and seaweed in a meaningful way and those products could replace some fish products.

Grace Young. Photo by Allegra Boverman/MIT News

What other questions do you still want to pursue in your work?

One big one on my mind right now is, how does the 3D architecture of a reef influence the community on the reef? It’s playing on this analogy of a reef as a city. The reef provides apartments and food, depots for organisms that range from being just a few millimeters to being over a meter long, all with different food and light and turbulence requirements. They really are like cities.

You are drawn to the sea and to exploration, but then you work with a lot of earthbound technology, and you’ve studied in Boston and now London, not exactly a stone’s throw from any coral reefs. How do you decide where you want to be doing your work, physically?

That’s something i’ve been thinking about a lot. I do spend a lot of time on the water. I was just sailing across the Atlantic for a month last year. So a lot of my days are surrounded by the ocean, but I guess the truth is, in research I’m either doing field work and on or near the water 24/7, or I’m sitting—and this is the non-glamorous part of research—I’m sitting usually at a computer analyzing the data or planning experiments. So it doesn’t really matter where you analyze the data or stare at your laptop. That’s the truth of it.

So should we just use rovers to explore the depths, while scientists stay dry in the lab?

I don’t want robots to have all of the fun. There’s value in keeping humans in the loop. The exciting things for me are when technology can aid human exploration and human understanding of the ocean.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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Meet the Author

Christina Nunez
Christina Nunez is a writer based near Washington, D.C. She spent five years at National Geographic covering energy for the website, including stories about the hidden clean energy labyrinths underneath cities, the scientific effort to find and fix the places where the world is hemorrhaging methane, and Californian farmers converting crops to solar panels. Before that, she worked as a digital editor and producer at media outlets including NPR and AOL. She also had the privilege of interviewing each and every one of National Geographic's incredible 2016 class of emerging explorers, and she continues to write about energy, innovation, and other topics for Nat Geo and elsewhere.