Born in Clifton Forge, Virginia in 1889, 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. Young graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1923. Just tried unsuccessfully to help her to gain funding for graduate school, but in 1924 Young began studying for her master’s degree at the University of Chicago, which she received in 1926.
Young worked with Ernest Everett Just for many years, teaching as an Assistant Professor at Howard University from 1923 to 1935.Research was done during the summers. Young assisted Just in his research from 1927 through 1930, but although her assistance was noted in his grant applications, her name does not appear as a coauthor in the resulting publications.
While studying at Chicago, she was asked to join Sigma XI, a scientific research society, which was an unusual honor for a master’s student. 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.