Early yearsBorn in Clifton Forge, Virginia in 1899, Young soon moved with her family to Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. The family was poor and much time and resources were expended in the care of her disabled mother.
In 1916, Young enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. to study music. She did not take her first science course until 1921. Though her grades were poor at the beginning of her college career, some of her teachers saw promise in her. One of these was Ernest Everett Just, a prominent black biologist and head of the Zoology department at Howard. He started mentoring her, and Young graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1923.
The influence of Ernest Everett Just seemed to improve her academics and they worked together for many years. Just also helped her to gain funding for graduate school, and in 1924 Young began studying for her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago, she was asked to join Sigma XI, a scientific research society, which was an unusual honor for a master's student. She also began to publish her research, and in 1924 her first article, "On the excretory apparatus in Paramecium" was published in the journal Science, making her the first African American woman to research and professionally publish in this field. Young received her master’s degree in 1926.
CareerErnest Everett Just then invited Young to work with him during summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts beginning in 1927. While there, they worked on researching the fertilization process in marine organisms, as well as the process of hydration and dehydration in living cells. In 1929, Young returned to Howard to be interim department head for the zoology department for the time while Just was in Europe seeking grant money.
In the fall of 1929, Young returned to the University of Chicago to begin her doctorate degree under the direction of Frank Rattray Lillie. Lillie had been a mentor of Just while both were involved with the Marine Biological Laboratory. However, in 1930 she failed to pass her qualifying exams, and for a time, disappeared from the scientific community. She returned to Howard University to teach and continued working with Just at the Marine Biological Laboratory during the summers.
However, around 1935, rumors started circulating that there was a romance between Just and Young, and in 1936 they had a huge confrontation. Later that year she was fired, ostensibly because she mistreated lab equipment and missed classes. She used this setback as an opportunity to try again to obtain a Ph.D. In June 1937, she went to the University of Pennsylvania, studying with Lewis Victor Heilbrunn (another scientist she met at the Marine Biological Laboratory) and graduated with her doctorate in 1940.
After obtaining her doctorate, Young became an assistant professor at the North Carolina College for Negroes. She later held teaching positions in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Young contributed a great deal of work to science. She studied the effects of direct and indirect radiation on sea urchin eggs, on the structures that control the salt concentration in paramecium, as well as hydration and dehydration of living cells. She published four papers between 1935 and 1938 and also wrote several books.