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Urge to protect oceans propels youngest aquanaut on Cousteau’s Mission 31

A photo shoot in New York for Glamour magazine led Grace Young to where she is now: living and working 60 feet under the sea as the youngest aquanaut on Fabien Cousteau’s Mission 31.

The 21-year-old Ohioan just graduated last week from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor of science in mechanical and ocean engineering. She missed her own graduation to prepare for the 16 days she is spending at Aquarius, the only offshore underwater habitat still functioning in the world. It’s anchored at Conch Reef, about 3.5 miles from Key Largo in the Atlantic Ocean.

A few days before making the plunge of her life, Young said: “I think it’s so important for people who build technologies to understand the ecosystems and how what they put in the ocean can affect the ocean ecosystem. Unfortunately, not a lot of engineers, including myself before this project, have a good base understanding of the ocean.”

Young is getting a crash course from two experts in the field, Mark Patterson and Brian Helmuth, Northeastern University faculty members who both went on their first saturation dive missions before Young was born.

They “adopted” Young as part of Northeastern’s research and science team, which is conducting five projects during the second half of Mission 31. Florida International University, which now operates Aquarius, conducted its own science and research projects during the first half.

Young is a whiz at robotics, an interest developed when she was a young girl. She was intrigued by the automated machines that mixed and molded chocolate at her family’s company, Harry London Candies.

“Initially, we were going to use a whole bunch of robotics when the mission was supposed to be in November,” Patterson said. “That didn’t pan out, but we still wanted to have her tech talents used.”

For six to eight hours per day, Young will be working in the water in scuba gear. Part of the time she will help the Northeastern team set up the science projects that deal with corals and environmental stress, environmental contaminant exposure, sponge feeding and the health of reef zooplankton. She also will collect tiny DNA samples from 14 different species of sponges for Ocean Genome Legacy, a nonprofit with a mission to explore, preserve and protect the genetic biodiversity of the oceans by creating a network of marine-dedicated public DNA banks.

And Young will try to capture a goliath grouper ambushing its prey on MIT’s Edgertronic, a super high-speed video camera just released five weeks ago.

This rare opportunity for Young evolved from a surprise call from Glamour magazine telling her she was selected as one of its top 10 college women of 2013. The year before she had won the Wallace Prize as MIT’s top ocean and engineering undergraduate.

Young went to New York for the photo shoot, which included a reception for the honorees attended by Cousteau, a friend of a Glamour editor.

“We both were not eating the seafood there,” Young said. “We talked about how we were both concerned about the sustainability of the seafood and of the oceans.”

Cousteau, grandson of legendary ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, told her about his “crazy” and ambitious idea to do Mission 31, which at 31 days would be one day longer than his grandfather’s pioneering Continental Shelf II Mission in 1963 off the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea.

Cousteau wanted Mission 31 to be primarily about educating the masses around the world about the plight of the oceans being destroyed by global warming, overfishing and pollution. And the mission would be a plea for ocean conservation.

Young fit the bill for an aquanaut who was a good communicator and could inspire the next generation with her own passion for the ocean. She also has worked in Hawaii for the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration on a project in which robots were used with camera systems to monitor fish in the Pacific Ocean.

“The information is used to help NOAA better set annual seafood catch limits and better determine the boundaries for marine protected zones in Hawaii,” Young said.

In Cape Cod, she helped design, build and operate submersible and aerial robots during an ocean project for NOAA and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The submersible robots were used to map sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Drones were used to survey the ocean from the air.

When Cousteau asked her to be an aquanaut, Young immediately got excited. “It sounded like an adventure,” she said. “My mom, at first, was worried I’d be eaten by a shark. But one of the aquanauts said that living in Aquarius is safer than a typical day driving in Miami.”

Patterson and Helmuth also were happy to sign on with Cousteau. His celebrity has helped get the word out about their groundbreaking work at Northeastern. Both are involved in the new Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative at the college.

“How do you live sustainably with the natural environment but not separate from it?” Helmuth said. The projects at Aquarius all try to help answer that question, including one involving the 200-year-old filtering barrel sponges at Conch Reef.

“Every two to three days all the water on a reef is filtered through a sponge,” Helmuth said. “One of the things we want to figure out is are they filtering out microplastics? We have all this plastic in the ocean that is broken down into tiny bits. Where does it go?”

In another project they are placing simple plastic strips pretreated with a tracer chemical in the water column. “They will take up toxins from the ocean the same way tissue of an organism like a clam or sponge or coral would,” Patterson said. “We’ll try to find out what kind of nasties are drifting by Conch Reef. We’re going on a prospecting mission to see if there are any dispersants still coming out of the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill.”

Patterson also is leading a study of the inside of coral polyps, part of a three-year $500,000 project funded by a National Science Foundation grant. All of the other projects are on a shoestring budget.

Using a $53,000 instrument developed by a Danish company, a microelectrode probe that is only 1/10th the diameter of a human hair is stuck inside the gut of the coral to measure oxygen and pH. The goal is to measure how corals respond internally to daily fluctuations in external temperature, light, pH and dissolved oxygen.

“Nobody has done this on a reef before,” Patterson said.

In the 1970s and ’80s, quite a bit of research was done on the health of zooplankton, the tiny animals that live on the reef and feed the whole ocean, Patterson said. But that research petered out.

“Now, scientists are finding entire ocean basins where the planktonic community is starting to change because of global warming,” Patterson said. “It’s shifting different species and there is less of it, which is worrisome.”

Samples of zooplankton are being taken over the course of the entire lunar cycle and likely will be used by a Northeastern student for a Ph.D. project.

Young’s big challenge is to capture on high-speed video the dining methods of goliath groupers and other big fish. She’ll use the Edgertronic, which is named after Doc Edgerton, who went to MIT decades ago and pioneered high-speed photography.

“He worked closely with Jacques Cousteau, who called him Papa Flash,” Young said.

She practiced using the Edgertronic on a German shepherd lapping up milk. At 700 frames per second, the footage shows the tongue curling backward to form the shape of a ladle. Young will be the first to use the camera under water.

A goliath grouper, which can grow to 300 plus pounds, feeds by opening its mouth so wide that it dislocates its jaw and water rushes in. “So its mouth basically becomes a vacuum,” Young said. “It brings in fish, and a small cavitation bubble forms in the grouper’s tissue. Bubbles form and expand really fast. Even from inside the Aquarius, you can feel the sonic boom of cavitation bubbles collapsing.”

But this all happens in an instant.

“It can only be captured in high speed,” she said. “It’s going to be really challenging to time it just right. But we’re hoping to validate an unproven theory that the goliath groupers use the sound of a collapsing cavitation bubble as a weapon to stun prey.”

She also hopes to capture never-before-seen detail of coral feeding on plankton and pistol shrimp, making loud snapping noises with their claws as they catch prey.

Inside Aquarius, she will spend a lot of time sharing her findings and experiences through “Skype in the Classroom” sessions and through her blog:

Everything she learns at Aquarius will help in her quest for a Ph.D. in ocean engineering at Oxford University in England, where she plans to study the environmental impact of deep sea mining on the ocean ecosystems. “National Geographic estimates there’s 100 trillion dollars worth of gold in the ocean,” Young said. “If it was easy to get to, it would be gone.”

But in the next five to 10 years, the technology may be advanced enough to begin such exploration at thousands of feet deep, “which is really scary because it could destroy the deep ecosystems before we even know about them and learn what they have to teach us,” she said. “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”