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Explorer Albert Lin: A Passion for Pushing the Limits

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 09 February 2012
Albert Lin in profile, looking at large digital map (Courtesy of Calit2)

Albert Lin examines UCSD's HYPERspace wall, which displays a high-resolution digital map of an area in Mongolia.

Washington — Explorer and engineer Albert Lin has led three expeditions to Mongolia in search of lost archeological sites, including the tomb of Genghis Khan, the legendary warrior and founder of the Mongol empire.

Lin, 30, a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is passionate about pushing the limits of technology — from cutting-edge scientific instruments to social media and the Internet — to help open up new frontiers of exploration.

“Science and engineering are meant to ask questions,” he said. “Those questions still exist out there — you can still be an explorer. So much of the world is totally unknown.”

Because of the Internet, Lin said, “it’s possible for almost anybody, from anywhere around the world, to have access to the same information. People can learn now in a very connected way.”

Lin, who is Chinese American, has engineering degrees and a Ph.D. in material sciences from UCSD.

HIGH-TECH EXPEDITIONS

For the Mongolian expeditions, Lin and his team used advanced, noninvasive technologies such as satellite imaging, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and other geophysical instruments. These techniques preserve the integrity of culturally sensitive sites. Digging up the ground would be disrespectful to the traditions and beliefs of Mongolians who consider the Khan tomb to be sacred, Lin said.

The expeditions are part of the Valley of the Khans project, a collaboration among UCSD, the Mongolian Academy of Science, the International Association for Mongol Studies and the National Geographic Society.

While in Mongolia, the expedition team scanned the subsoil with high-tech instruments and sent data via satellite phone to a laboratory in Italy each day. The lab sent back maps of the subsoil in just a few hours.

The public was invited to participate in the expeditions by helping search through thousands of online satellite images for clues to the location of the Khan tomb and other sites – a technique called crowdsourcing. People were asked to look for anything that might indicate the presence of ancient structures, Lin said. The findings of these citizen scientists alerted the team to several promising locations in Mongolia.

On one expedition, the team found the remains of a large temple as well as numerous artifacts in the roots of downed trees. “We were given a window into the past,” said Lin. “We’re trying to figure out what it is.” The team is working with the Mongolian government and Mongolian scholars to determine the next steps. Meanwhile, Lin and his colleagues continue to analyze data from their expeditions in UCSD’s high-tech laboratories.

Lin also directs the Engineers for Exploration program, which challenges UCSD students to create innovative technologies for National Geographic explorers and expeditions. In 2010, Lin was named a National Geographic Society Adventurer of the Year.

“If you find out what you’re really passionate about, your career will never be a job; it will always be something you love,” he said.

GOOGLE SCIENCE FAIR

Lin is a judge for the Google Science Fair, an international online competition that challenges students age 13–18 to investigate real-world problems. Last year’s grand-prize winner, selected from nearly 7,500 entries, discovered a way to improve ovarian cancer treatment.

The deadline for the competition is April 1, and entries can be submitted in 13 different languages.

“The 90 finalists will come together from all over the world and get to know each other and talk about their ideas,” Lin said, “and you never know where it can take us. Somebody in the middle of a village very far away can bring ideas and concepts and passions … and start pushing the future of science.”

Find out about the expeditions to Mongolia and the Google Science Fair, as well as Lin’s Exploration Laboratory.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Albert Lin on galloping horse with lake and mountains in background (Courtesy of Albert Lin)

Lin on horseback during a vist to Central Asia