"Grace C. Young is fascinated by fundamental questions about realms both quantum and undersea."
Each summer, the international research laboratory CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider, welcomes dozens of students to work alongside seasoned scientists on cutting-edge particle physics research. Many of these students will pursue physics research in graduate school, but some find themselves applying the lessons they learned at CERN to new domains.
In 2011, MIT undergraduate Grace Young was one of these CERN summer students.
Like many young adults, Young didn’t know what career path she wanted to pursue. “I tried all the majors,” Young says. “Physics, engineering, architecture, math, computer science. Separately, I always loved both the ocean and building things; it wasn’t until I learned about ocean engineering that I knew I had found my calling.”
Today, Young is completing her PhD in ocean engineering at the University of Oxford and is chief scientist for the deep-sea submarine Pisces VI. She develops technology for ocean research and in 2014 lived underwater for 15 days. During a recent visit to CERN, Young spoke with Symmetry writer Sarah Charley about the journey that led her from fundamental physics back to her first love, the ocean.
As a junior in high school you competed in Intel’s International Science Fair and won a trip to CERN. What was your project?
GY: A classmate and I worked in a quantum physics lab at University of Maryland. We designed and built several devices, called particle traps, that had potential applications for quantum computing. We soldered wires onto the mirror inside a flashlight to create a bowl-shaped electric field and then applied alternating current to repeatedly flip the field, which made tiny charged particles hover in mid-air.
We were really jumping into the deep end on quantum physics; it was kind of amazing that it worked! Winning a trip to CERN was a dream come true. It was a transformative experience that had a huge impact on my career path.
You then came back to CERN as a freshman at MIT. What is it about CERN and particle physics that made you want to return?
GY: My peek inside CERN the previous year sparked an interest that drove me to apply for the Openlab internship [a technology development collaboration between CERN scientists and members of companies or research institutes].
Although I learned a lot from my assignment, my interest and affinity for CERN derives from the community of researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines from all over the world. It was CERN's high-powered global community of scientists congregated in one beautiful place to solve big problems that was a magnet for me.
You say you’ve always loved the ocean. What is it about the ocean that inspires you?
GY: I’ve loved being by the water since I was born. I find it very humbling, standing on the shore and having the waves breaking at my feet.
This huge body of water differentiates our planet from other rocks in space, yet so little is known about it. The more time I spent on or in the water, either sailing or diving, the more I began taking a deeper interest in marine life and the essential role the ocean plays in sustaining life as we know it on Earth.
What does an ocean engineer actually do?
GY: One big reason that we’ve only explored 5 percent of the ocean is because the deep sea is so forbidding for humans. We simply don't have the biology to see or communicate underwater, much less exist for more than a few minutes just below surface.
But all this is changing with better underwater imaging, sensors and robotic technologies. As an ocean engineer, I design and build things such as robotic submersibles, which can monitor the health of fisheries in marine sanctuaries, track endangered species and create 3-D maps of underwater ice shelves. These tools, combined with data collected during field research, enable me and my colleagues to explore the ocean and monitor the human impact on its fragile ecosystems.
I also design new eco-seawalls and artificial coral reefs to protect coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges while reviving essential marine ecosystems.
What questions are you hoping to answer during your career as an ocean engineer and researcher?
GY: How does the ocean support so much biodiversity? More than 70 percent of our planet is covered by water, producing more than half the oxygen we breathe, storing more carbon dioxide than all terrestrial plant life and feeding billions of humans. And yet 95 percent of our ocean remains unexplored and essentially unknown.
The problem we are facing today is that we are destroying so many of the ocean’s ecosystems before we even know they exist. We can learn a lot about how to stay alive and thrive by studying the oceanic habitats, leading to unforeseeable discoveries and scientific advancements.
What are some of your big goals with this work?
GY: We face big existential ocean-related problems, and I'd like to help develop solutions for them. Overfishing, acidification, pollution and warming temperatures are destroying the ocean’s ecosystems and affecting humans by diminishing a vital food supply, shifting weather patterns and accelerating sea-level rise. Quite simply, if we don't know or understand the problems, we can't fix them.
Have you found any unexpected overlaps between the research at CERN and the research on a submarine?
GY: Vision isn’t a good way to see the underwater world. The ocean is pitch black in most of its volume, and the creatures don’t rely on vision. They feel currents with their skin, use sound and can read the chemicals in the water to smell food. It would make sense for humans to use sensors that do that same thing.
Physicists faced this same challenge and found other ways to characterize subatomic particles and the celestial bodies without relying on vision. Ocean sciences are moving in this same direction.
What do you think ocean researchers and particle physicists can learn from each other?
GY: I think we already know it: That is, we can only solve big problems by working together. I'm convinced that only by working together across disciplines, ethnicities and nationalities can we survive as a species.
Of course, the physical sciences are integral to everything related to ocean engineering, but it's really CERN's problem-solving methodology that's most inspiring and applicable. CERN was created to solve big problems by combining the best of human learning irrespective of nationality, ethnicity or discipline. Our Pisces VI deep sea submarine team is multidisciplinary, multinational and—just like CERN—it's focused on exploring the unknown that's essential to life as we know it.
"It was CERN's high-powered global community of scientists congregated in one beautiful place to solve big problems that was a magnet for me." -- Grace C. Young
CERN's Symmetry publication recently published an interview I did with them a few weeks ago. Excerpts are below, and you can read the full interview at ww.symmetrymagazine.org/article/cern-alumna-turned-deep-sea-explorer
More about CERN and my recent visit is in the blog post, "Return to CERN." I look forward to presenting at CERN's alumni event in February.
Last week I had the honor of attending National Geographic’s first-ever Explorers Festival. It was many things: It was a gathering of explorers from all disciplines and corners of the globe; it was my introduction to the NatGeo “family;” it was an excuse for NatGeo to roll out the 'yellow carpet' for James Cameron, Sylvia Earle, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bob Ballard, and other explorer-celebrities.
As a 2017 Emerging Explorer, I gave a 10-minute talk about my work and dreams and then contributed to a panel discussion on “Transformative Technology;” both are online here.
The week was a gear-shifting process for me. For the past several months I’ve been up to my ears in my PhD thesis. This week forced me to take a few steps back and think big-picture, about major goals and priorities in terms of ocean technology development. It also forced me to reflect on my personal story --- the twists of fate that pushed me to where I am now.
NatGeo focuses on human elements of any story; I believe this is one reason why it effectively engages across disciplines. Explorers are encouraged not just to talk about their work, as they might at an academic or technical conference, but also to speak of their motivations – how and why they got to their unique position. Usually these stories take us back to childhood, but not all the time – sometimes the story starts later in life. Distilling one’s life into a story is a difficult task if you overthink it. How can one figure out which moments of the past millions and millions of moments to cut and which to mention? How do our brains remove the signal from the noise? Only in hindsight have I identified some of the more transformative moments. The storytellers at NatGeo helped me bring out the bits of my story that linked my path in ways I hadn’t considered before. For that I’m very thankful to the NatGeo community.
Next week we are hosting what we think is the FIRST LIVE UNDERWATER SEMINAR at Oxford! Come along if you're in the area! It'll also be video-recorded/posted online at a later date.
Aside: A piece titled "We Need a New Approach for Saving the Oceans!" for the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources by David Wills mentioned
my 2015 TIME op-ed article about a new vision for ocean research, including creating a CERN-like organization for the ocean. David supports the vision, and explains why fisheries management based on “maximum sustained yield” must be revised (snippet below).
Read David's full article here.
After Kansas, I headed to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit and to reunite with the SailFuture crew. SailFuture, you might remember I sailed across the Atlantic for them last winter, is at the moment setting up a new home in St. Pete for the young adults they work with. At BLUE, I was fortunate to reconnect with familiar faces like Billy Snook from Mission 31, Dr. Sylvia Earle from Mission Blue, and Zach Ponder from Utila; I also met plenty of new people, like the founder of Nekton, Erika Bergman, researchers at University South Florida and University of Miami, and an handful of submarine pilots. I was surprised to see my main thesis supervisor, Professor Alex Rogers, featured in one of the films!
Until Christmas (when my family visits the UK!), I'm focused on thesis work and four more papers in the pipeline (see my thoughts on peer review publishing). I'll also be at the Reef Conservation UK Conference at The Zoological Society of London on November 26th and speaking at the Royal Russell School on December 7th.
Thank you Fusion for the nice profile! In the video I share (in 1 minute!) why the ocean is important and my goal to explore and more sustainably manage the ocean using marine robotics.
Check out other videos in their "genius" (flatteringly named) series too:
Last week 100,000+ people and thousands of companies were in Houston for the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), which is basically the Disney World of the offshore oil and gas industry. I was there as a student representative for the Marine Technology Society Council, along with the extraordinary Breezy Grenier, the other MTS student representative. The Marine Technology Society, especially OTC Board member Chuck Richards (of C.A. Richards & Associates), deserve a huge thanks for welcoming Breezy and me at the conference.
Most of the conference was geared towards oil and gas companies. I was more interested in underwater imaging systems. Bowtech Products Ltd put on a good show of their underwater cameras, LED lighting, connectors, and fiber optic multiplexers. There were also a number of impressive sonar imaging systems, e.g., by 2G Robotics. Most companies there are looking to make business connections with other businesses, so I'm really thankful when they're willing to chat with students, even though we're clearly not buying.
Brian Salerno, Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, had interesting remarks on the conference from the perspective of a regulator:
Your industry sets a very aggressive pace, you are the source of new ideas and technology. The challenge for those of us who are regulators is to keep pace with you, and to understand the safety and environmental implications of this technology, so that offshore resources can be developed without incident.
This then gets to the fundamental question of the role of the regulator, vis-a-vis the industry, and how we can collaborate in a meaningful way, all the while remaining true to our obligation to act first and foremost in the public interest.
His full statement here.
I learned that the US government is extremely interested in a) the missing flight 370, and b) the Pacific garbage patch, but little else ocean related. These are by no means the biggest threats facing the ocean -- that list would start with overfishing, pollution, and climate change (which includes acidification). Frankly, it's scandalous that the US still hasn't ratified the Law of the Sea Convention that it negotiated more than 30 years ago. 165 other countries have passed us by!
The MTS council meeting was the day before the conference started, so we had time to explore the city, including the Natural History Museum.
Something interesting happened at dinner. I was talking about Mission 31 and from across the table someone quietly said "I worked for 5 years to get Aquarius shut down." I won't name names here but a fascinating conversation ensued about the relative value and merits of deep-sea research compared to other fields (say, hurricane prediction). I learned that the National Science Foundation (a major source of government science funding) now judges its grant applicants on the broader impacts of the research and its benefits to society (see broader impacts criterion). The problem is that scientists, especially those doing cutting edge research, don't always know the impact of their research. Fourier, for example, struggled to fund his theoretical mathematics research on the Fourier transform. He died long before the results of his work (i.e., the Fourier Transform) were used as the basis for most telecommunications on the globe.
The debate on who should fund what scientific research is huge. Should governments fund? Should private companies? If the government funds, will the private sector follow? I don't have answers, but I know something has to change. See "James Cameron says today's ocean exploration is “piss poor.” He's right.
How much plastic is in the ocean? Way too much. This infographic by One World One Ocean explains.
More Grace Under Pressure blog posts here.
I spoke at STEMspiration today to a group of high school students in D.C. So honored to be part of a great line up of speakers:
From the STEMspiration site:
STEMspiration is the first STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) conference of its kind - a completely student-led event bringing together leaders, doers, makers and thinkers of the highest caliber. STEMspiration has been crafted by the USASEF Youth Advisors as an independent initiative to promote powerful ideas and collaboration in the STEM world.
Who is STEMspiration for, you might ask? Frankly, it is for anyone who cares deeply about the future of science in our society, and how we will encourage rising generations to fearlessly jump into the fray of innovation and discovery. Students, teachers, policy makers, non-profits, inventors, academics, and anyone else will find a place at STEMspiration. While the event will be taking place at McKinley Tech High in Washington D.C., it will be live-streamed for easy access to anyone who has access to the internet.
The STEMspiration Speakers:
Keynote by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Bill Drayton: Founder and CEO, Ashoka
Stephan Turnipseed: President Emeritus, LEGO Education
Adam Garry: Manager of Global Professional Learning, Dell
Joe Palca: Science correspondent, National Public Radio
Grace Young: Aquatic robot scientist, MIT
Jim Meeks: Board of Governors, Jefferson Awards
Steve Culbertson: CEO, Youth Service America
Kaya Henderson: Chancellor, Washington DC Public Schools
Ritankar Das: Founder of See Your Future, the youngest university medalist in Berkley history, Oxford MSc candidate for Bioengineering, and generally nice guy.
Jack Andraka: Winner of the International Science and Engineering Fair for work on a new detection tool for certain cancers, advocate for open access and pokemon master in the works.
Jonny Cohen: Inventor of Greenshield, Forbes 30 under 30 twice, Mechanical engineering student at Columbia, makes them busses work better.
Adora Svitak: Author at age 7, curator of TEDxRedmond, champion and advocate for world hunger, short-story connoisseur.
Omar Abudayyeh: Researcher, MD/PhD candidate at Harvard/MIT, entrepreneur and published scientist. He can see in cells what others cannot.
Sara Volz: Intel Science Talent Search grand winner, published researcher, created super-algae for alternative fuel from her bedroom, MIT student.
Param Jaggi: Founder of EcoViate to make green products widely effective and available, discovered effective algae bio-reactor at 14, looks pretty great in lab goggles.
Parker Liautaud: Explorer of the great Arctic and Antarctic, fighter for the environment, TIME magazine 30 under 30 list, he can get you to the North or South Pole, and he can get you home.
Erik Martin: Game Designer and education activist, works on games that help people and society, founder of The Edvengers Super Hero PAC, is a fire mage in his spare time.
Grace Young is an MIT ocean engineer, aquanaut, and scientist/engineer with Cousteau's Mission 31. She's currently a PhD student at University of Oxford, chief scientist for the Pisces VI deepsea submarine, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.