Meet the World's Youngest Female Aquanaut
There’s no question about it: Grace Young already wears a lot of hats at age 26. A former ballerina, her email auto-signature is formidable: Aquanaut, NatGeo Explorer, MIT graduate with a degree in mechanical and ocean engineering, and Oxford PhD. She recently added another title: research engineer at X, Google’s once-secret technology lab in Mountain View, California, that addresses global problems by developing radical technological solutions, including self-driving cars, learning robots, and smart glasses.
And while Grace recently spent three weeks in Tanzania, the Caribbean, and Italy studying ancient reefs to help understand the future of present-day coral reefs in the face of climate change, she says it’s the 15 days she spent living underwater that intrigues people the most when they meet her.
“We would sleep and eat in this air bubble and dive in the water for eight hours a day,” Grace says of her work at Mission 31, a research station run by Fabien Cousteau. She was the youngest female aquanaut there at the time, right after graduating from MIT. “I loved it and would go back there in a heartbeat!”
Grace grew up in North Canton, Ohio, where she was a Girl Scout, and later, in high school, co-leader of a Girl Scout robotics camp for fourth graders.
As her love for science and engineering was burgeoning, she kept dancing, which she continued all the way through college. Ballet, Grace says, helped to prepare her for a challenging career in engineering at Google X.
Since joining the company, she has developed software and helped design, build, and test submersible and aerial robots for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Robots she helped develop have been deployed in the Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans to monitor marine protected areas, survey endangered species, and create 3D maps of ice shelves to better measure climate change.
As you might guess, for Grace, the most exciting part of the work is getting out on the water. Grace finds even the logistics of these expeditions, including the precision required to pack for the trip, fun.
“I think of those unglamorous parts—whether it’s packing, dealing with customs, and having contingency plan after contingency plan—to be part of the adventure,” she says.
To be a leader in this field, Grace stresses the importance of staying calm under pressure.
“It’s important for you to think logically through stressful situations and make appropriate, timely decisions when things have not gone to plan,” she says. “An advisor once told me that ‘the ocean is not cruel; it’s just unforgiving.’”
This means that things break while you’re far out at sea.
“Electronics and salt water just don’t mix,” she says. “And sometimes all you have is duct tape to fix them the best you can until you get back to port.”
And if you ask Grace where she expects to be in five to 10 years, you can be sure she’ll be helping to uncover new discoveries emerging from our vast oceans.
“I imagine I’ll be using tools that haven’t even been invented yet,” she says. “I smile, wondering what they will be. I want to understand new mysteries and opportunities in our underwater world. I hope to be working with a variety of organizations, public and private, toward this goal.”