Modern-Day Explorer Goes High-Tech Out of Respect

National Geographic, academia provide outlet for adventurer to follow his passion.

Engineer, mountaineer, surfer, sailor, photographer, traveler — Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin goes by many titles, but the two that have probably taken him the farthest both geographically and in prominence are emerging explorer for the National Geographic Society and research scientist at UC San Diego.

National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin

"I think engineering is, in a way, based on exploration. It's always about trying to ask questions, about being curious, being creative, said Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, National Geographic emerging explorer and UC San Diego research scientist.

A pioneer in non-invasive, computer-based technologies, Lin explores remote parts of the world using ground-, aerial- and satellite-based remote sensing to gather, synthesize and visualize data. A firm believer that exploring sacred places can be done without disturbance or disrespect — “There are many ways to look under the ground without having to touch it,” he’s observed — Lin has led a search for the tomb of Genghis Khan that has earned praise from the same Mongolians who had shun past efforts for fear that desecration could trigger a curse that would end the world.

Lin recently shared his thoughts on the fusion of exploration and technology, including a yarn about the significance Khan had early on in his adventure-filled career.

How important are science and technology to the exploration focus of National Geographic?

I think exploration and science go hand in hand. For example, one of the founders of National Geographic was Alexander Graham Bell, a technologist. Technology can change the way we look at the world, and that’s what exploration is about. It could be a new ship that allows you to sail across the world. Or it could be a new computer that can allow you to look at data in an entirely new way, and give you clues to something that’s age-old, very human.

I think engineering is, in a way, based on exploration. It’s always about trying to ask questions, about being curious, being creative. Exploration is the same thing, just applied to other kinds of questions. But as an engineer, in the work that I do now, it’s fundamental.

Where do connectivity and the cloud fit into the equation?

The consumer is smart. We’re so connected now, in so many ways, that you can literally be an expert in almost anything by just tapping your fingertips. So I think as this connectivity has increased our ability to have access to all this information, consumers are now able to [better] define what they want … [and] people want new things all the time.

Now that we’re putting all of our personal information into [the cloud], you can share data from one person to another by a click of the finger. I think that the idea of the cloud means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But to me, I think what it means is that our connectivity has been taken to the next level, and we’re going to see some remarkable things that we can do with it.

What things would you love to see?

I’m just excited to see what people do with technology. We’re in a time when we’re facing political shifts, changes in our climate, in our world. We’re facing a time in which the whole world is kind of in a make-it-or-break-it situation, and we’ve really got to address a lot of these key issues. I think now, with the way in which technology has developed at such a rapid pace, any individual has the power to make a real difference, and to have that connected to a bigger thing.

I’m really excited to see the ways in which technology enables the human side of things to stand up and make those choices, make those acts of change, and allow us to really focus ourselves on sustainability and on a positive future. I think that’s going to be the exciting thing over the next year.

Can you pinpoint when your love of engineering and exploring merged?

I grew up in the States where I was a little bit disconnected from my past. Because my grandfather had said that there may have been some influence from Mongolia in my family tree, I went to Mongolia during the summer when I was an engineering student. My idea was that I was going to buy a horse and I was going to go out in the middle of nowhere and live with the nomads if I could find them, and then come back, sell my horse, go home and learn something more about where I came from.

The crazy part is when I was on this train from Beijing to Mongolia I met these people who said, “If you do this, you’re going to die. There’s no way you’re going to do this.” But they ended up giving me a horse, and taking me out to the nomadic lands, and let me live with them. It taught me all about this ancient history that is connected to us today, by a person that was a fundamental founder in their entire way of being, this guy, Genghis Khan. I hadn’t learned much about him in my own history classes, because Mongolians look at him in a much different way [than what is taught in the United States].

And so I came home, and I started getting really obsessed about history. At the same time, I was getting my Ph.D. in engineering. When I finished I wanted to pursue an [area] I’m very curious about: my human heritage. I’m going to take all the tools that I’ve learned about in school as an engineer, and I’m going to combine the two.

Your passion hasn’t wavered?

Every single day I’m looking at ways in which engineering and these human things combine themselves to ask questions about ourselves that we’ve been asking for thousands of years. For example, there’s a whole revolution of how we can look at our own DNA. The fact that for a hundred bucks, you can figure out what your lineage is all the way back 50,000 years. It’s crazy, right? And one of the cool things about that they discovered that one in 200 men across the world is related to Genghis Khan.

How fortunate do you feel being able to take two passions and turn that into a career?

I think the best piece of advice that anybody ever gave me was that if you do what you love, then the money will come. But if you do what makes money, then you’re probably not going to be doing what you love. Figuring out what you love to do — that’s the hardest thing. And when you find it, stick to it.

Let me phrase that in a different way. I personally believe that we have a very short amount of time on this planet and we’ve got to make the most of it by just figuring out what you really care about and going all in. And that means really going all in and deciding, while you’ve built whatever you’ve built around you, there’s no time like today to decide that what you’ve always been passionate about is going to be the focus of your life.

Modern-Day Explorer Goes High-Tech Out of Respect

National Geographic, academia provide outlet for adventurer to follow his passion.

Engineer, mountaineer, surfer, sailor, photographer, traveler — Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin goes by many titles, but the two that have probably taken him the farthest both geographically and in prominence are emerging explorer for the National Geographic Society and research scientist at UC San Diego.

National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin

"I think engineering is, in a way, based on exploration. It's always about trying to ask questions, about being curious, being creative, said Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, National Geographic emerging explorer and UC San Diego research scientist.

A pioneer in non-invasive, computer-based technologies, Lin explores remote parts of the world using ground-, aerial- and satellite-based remote sensing to gather, synthesize and visualize data. A firm believer that exploring sacred places can be done without disturbance or disrespect — “There are many ways to look under the ground without having to touch it,” he’s observed — Lin has led a search for the tomb of Genghis Khan that has earned praise from the same Mongolians who had shun past efforts for fear that desecration could trigger a curse that would end the world.

Lin recently shared his thoughts on the fusion of exploration and technology, including a yarn about the significance Khan had early on in his adventure-filled career.

How important are science and technology to the exploration focus of National Geographic?

I think exploration and science go hand in hand. For example, one of the founders of National Geographic was Alexander Graham Bell, a technologist. Technology can change the way we look at the world, and that’s what exploration is about. It could be a new ship that allows you to sail across the world. Or it could be a new computer that can allow you to look at data in an entirely new way, and give you clues to something that’s age-old, very human.

I think engineering is, in a way, based on exploration. It’s always about trying to ask questions, about being curious, being creative. Exploration is the same thing, just applied to other kinds of questions. But as an engineer, in the work that I do now, it’s fundamental.

Where do connectivity and the cloud fit into the equation?

The consumer is smart. We’re so connected now, in so many ways, that you can literally be an expert in almost anything by just tapping your fingertips. So I think as this connectivity has increased our ability to have access to all this information, consumers are now able to [better] define what they want … [and] people want new things all the time.

Now that we’re putting all of our personal information into [the cloud], you can share data from one person to another by a click of the finger. I think that the idea of the cloud means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But to me, I think what it means is that our connectivity has been taken to the next level, and we’re going to see some remarkable things that we can do with it.

What things would you love to see?

I’m just excited to see what people do with technology. We’re in a time when we’re facing political shifts, changes in our climate, in our world. We’re facing a time in which the whole world is kind of in a make-it-or-break-it situation, and we’ve really got to address a lot of these key issues. I think now, with the way in which technology has developed at such a rapid pace, any individual has the power to make a real difference, and to have that connected to a bigger thing.

I’m really excited to see the ways in which technology enables the human side of things to stand up and make those choices, make those acts of change, and allow us to really focus ourselves on sustainability and on a positive future. I think that’s going to be the exciting thing over the next year.

Can you pinpoint when your love of engineering and exploring merged?

I grew up in the States where I was a little bit disconnected from my past. Because my grandfather had said that there may have been some influence from Mongolia in my family tree, I went to Mongolia during the summer when I was an engineering student. My idea was that I was going to buy a horse and I was going to go out in the middle of nowhere and live with the nomads if I could find them, and then come back, sell my horse, go home and learn something more about where I came from.

The crazy part is when I was on this train from Beijing to Mongolia I met these people who said, “If you do this, you’re going to die. There’s no way you’re going to do this.” But they ended up giving me a horse, and taking me out to the nomadic lands, and let me live with them. It taught me all about this ancient history that is connected to us today, by a person that was a fundamental founder in their entire way of being, this guy, Genghis Khan. I hadn’t learned much about him in my own history classes, because Mongolians look at him in a much different way [than what is taught in the United States].

And so I came home, and I started getting really obsessed about history. At the same time, I was getting my Ph.D. in engineering. When I finished I wanted to pursue an [area] I’m very curious about: my human heritage. I’m going to take all the tools that I’ve learned about in school as an engineer, and I’m going to combine the two.

Your passion hasn’t wavered?

Every single day I’m looking at ways in which engineering and these human things combine themselves to ask questions about ourselves that we’ve been asking for thousands of years. For example, there’s a whole revolution of how we can look at our own DNA. The fact that for a hundred bucks, you can figure out what your lineage is all the way back 50,000 years. It’s crazy, right? And one of the cool things about that they discovered that one in 200 men across the world is related to Genghis Khan.

How fortunate do you feel being able to take two passions and turn that into a career?

I think the best piece of advice that anybody ever gave me was that if you do what you love, then the money will come. But if you do what makes money, then you’re probably not going to be doing what you love. Figuring out what you love to do — that’s the hardest thing. And when you find it, stick to it.

Let me phrase that in a different way. I personally believe that we have a very short amount of time on this planet and we’ve got to make the most of it by just figuring out what you really care about and going all in. And that means really going all in and deciding, while you’ve built whatever you’ve built around you, there’s no time like today to decide that what you’ve always been passionate about is going to be the focus of your life.