Under the sea

A house by the sea isn’t uncommon, but it takes a true love of the ocean to want to live beneath the sea. Yet when ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau asked MIT senior Grace Young to join his team of aquanauts in living for a month underwater, Young didn’t hesitate.

“I said ‘Yes!’ right away,” she says. “It’s great outreach, plus really interesting research.”

The expedition, known as Mission 31, will consist of 31 days living in an underwater capsule called Aquarius, 63 feet below the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Mission 31 will begin in mid-November and, if successful, would break the underwater living record of 30 days currently held by Fabien Cousteau’s grandfather, famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

Young, a mechanical and ocean engineering major, will take charge of marine robots on the mission and run daily Skype sessions with K-12 classrooms all over the world — while remaining a full-time MIT student. “Hopefully we’ll resurface before final exams,” she says with a smile.

Chocolate, ballet and robots

Young says that her path to robots and the ocean floor began years ago in the small Ohio town where she spent her early childhood. On weekends she would often sail at the lake near her house, and the family spent every summer in Michigan, sailing on the Great Lakes.

Her family operated a chocolate factory that her great-grandfather had opened; Young spent every day after school playing there with her cousins, watching her uncle tinker with the machines that made the chocolate, fascinated by the robotic arms that stirred, molded and packaged the candies.

When she was 12, Young’s family sold the factory and moved to Washington, D.C., where she took up ballet and began training with a pre-professional company, dreaming of becoming a professional dancer — that is, until she joined the robotics team.

“My school started a robotics team, and I joined as soon as I heard about it,” Young recounts. “I honestly had no idea what it was, but I was hooked almost immediately. For a while, I was the only girl on the team, but it didn’t really matter.”

While she continued ballet training, Young also threw herself into robotics. It was a different sort of challenge than she faced in dance.

“I liked problem-solving. That feeling when you get something working, even just an arm on a robot or a motor turning the right way, it’s exhilarating. I love it,” she says. Her hard work paid off: Young’s team made it to the VEX and First Robotics 2008, 2009 and 2010 world championships.

Young also excelled in her science and math classes, conducting physics research at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland during her summer vacations and taking advanced math classes at the University of Maryland during the school year. With her college counselor’s support, Young took the unusual step of applying to college as a high school junior — and was accepted at MIT. “Amazingly, MIT worked out,” Young says.

Saving the oceans

Young joined the sailing team during her first week at MIT, and has been racing on the varsity team ever since. “I love the wind in my face and being on the water,” she says. Being underwater has also been a favorite pastime since high school, when Young participated in scuba-diving excursions in the Florida Keys.

“It’s as if you’re in a new world. It’s really peaceful; sometimes all you hear is the sound of your breathing and water moving around you,” Young says. “In some ways I feel big, because I’m usually much larger than the fish, but at the same time I feel incredibly small, because the ocean is so huge and powerful.”

But as Young has come to realize, this vast and mysterious world is in serious danger: In addition to damage to ecosystems from global warming and ocean acidification, overfishing is estimated to have depleted as much as 90 percent of the ocean’s fish stocks since 1950.

Over this past summer, Young worked in Hawaii with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on an underwater robot called BotCam, which she hopes will help prevent overfishing. “It’s basically a camera monitoring system that tracks the number and size of fish in different locations,” Young explains. “The idea is that NOAA can use accurate data to set annual catch limits or mark some zones as no-fishing zones.”

After graduating in June, Young plans to go on to graduate study in ocean engineering and hopes to continue work on marine robotics to help protect the oceans. “I’m especially interested in how humans can sustainably harvest the oceans’ resources in energy, food and minerals, while conserving their fragile ecosystems. I’ll likely focus my graduate research on mineral extraction — seabed mining — and how that affects ocean ecosystems,” Young says. “It’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years, and I want to help develop technology that makes sure it happens cleanly.”