Illustration by Mary Crooks
  • Albert is leading the Valley of the Khans project, a search for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. After earning his doctorate in Materials Science from the University of California at San Diego, Albert took his explorations out of the classroom. In 2009, he led a National Geographic-funded expedition to a place in Mongolia’s Hentiy Province called Ikh Khorig, known by outsiders as the “Forbidden Zone,” to survey the area and find the Khan’s burial place.

    But Albert is not your average Indiana Jones. Using unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite imageryground-penetrating radar, and GPS, he remotely surveyed parts of the Forbidden Zone he couldn’t reach by foot. Back home in the lab at UCSD, he puts on his 3D glasses and explores this data in a virtual reality environment called the StarCAVE.

    The satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar allow Albert to see “deep into the historical record. Looking beneath the land, we can see where a river may have been diverted. Satellite images can help us see patterns that we can’t see from the ground.”

    Albert is enthusiastic about the search. “We’re talking about a man who conquered the greatest swath of land in the history of the world. From Mongolia, to China and India, all the way to Europe. His grandson, Kublai Khan, met with Marco Polo. In fact, Marco Polo’s travels were made possible by Genghis Khan [and the trade routes he established].”


    “I always wanted to be an explorer,” Albert says.

    When he was a kid, Albert wanted to be a National Geographic magazine photographer. He wanted to travel and take beautiful photographs of exotic places and the people who lived there. “I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this,” Albert says, “but as a kid, I was totally obsessed with Dances with Wolves.” Like the protagonist of that movie, he wanted to live among indigenous people.

    Albert was inspired by Maurizio Seracini. Like Albert, Maurizio Seracini is also an engineer from the University of California at San Diego. Maurizio applies his knowledge of bioengineering to the study of art: using multispectral imaging, he noninvasively analyzes and diagnoses art. Albert realized that he could put his knowledge of technology to work to study history and culture.

    “Sometimes, it seems like we are trying to make ourselves obsolete” with all the high-tech gadgets, Albert says. “Using the same skills, I realized I could unveil some aspect of my cultural past.”

    “So, I sold everything I had, set up a bed in my car, put my money where my mouth was. I kept repeating to myself that I was going to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. I just kept saying it, over and over. If you say you’re going to do something, eventually, you will.”


    “All of it. I’m living my dream.”


    “Nothing. I’m doing what I love.”


    “We need to think about the fourth dimension of geography: Time. Geographers can study climate change, populations, migration patterns. . . . Geography is more of a palette that has guided human and animal migration.”


    The Forbidden Zone is near Mongolia’s mountainous northern border with Russia. According to legend, Genghis Khan wished to be buried in these mountains, said to be his birthplace. After his death in 1227, a small group of zealous supporters were assigned to guard the sacred area and forbid any outsiders from entering. The area has only been open to some exploration for the past few decades.

    Albert isn’t quite sure what he will find. “Genghis Khan died in 1227. He died far away from his home. There isn’t likely to be a body. His sons and grandsons were supposedly buried in the same complex. It’s all legends.”

    Mongolians have mixed reactions to the search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. Some people remain superstitious. “He’s the greatest shaman who ever lived,” Albert explains, “and they don’t want his spirit disturbed.” When Albert’s team returns to Mongolia, they won’t disrupt the land or potential gravesites with digging. Instead, they will use noninvasive imaging technology to investigate interesting places discovered in the StarCAVE.


    “What you dream of as a kid, you need to pursue it as an adult. Follow your passion. If we all followed a paycheck, we would lose what makes us human.”

    Research Scientist and Engineer: Albert Yu-Min Lin
    Albert Lin is a research scientist and engineer.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    analyze Verb

    to study in detail.

    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    chemical property Noun

    unique identity of a substance expressed by its type and arrangement of molecules.

    climate change Noun

    gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Earth's Changing Climate
    divert Verb

    to direct away from a familiar path.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    enthusiastic Adjective


    exotic Adjective

    foreign or strange.

    exploit Verb

    to use or take advantage of for profit.

    fourth dimension Noun

    mathematical concept expanding the three physical dimensions of length, width, and height. Time is sometimes considered the fourth dimension.

    gadget Noun

    device or work-saving tool.

    Genghis Khan Noun

    (1162-1227) founder of the Mongol empire.

    ground-penetrating radar Noun

    method of providing an image of an area beneath the surface of the earth, using sound waves.

    indigenous culture Noun

    languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods of people who are native to a specific geographic area.

    inevitable Adjective

    certain to happen, unavoidable.

    Kublai Khan Noun

    (1215-1294) leader of the Mongol Empire and founder of the Yuan dynasty in China.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    Marco Polo Noun

    (1254-1324) Italian explorer.

    materials science Noun

    study of the properties and uses of materials such as glass, plastic, or metal.

    Maurizio Seracini Noun

    Italian engineer and art diagnostician.

    migration Noun

    movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

    mineral Noun

    inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

    mining Noun

    process of extracting ore from the Earth.

    preservation Noun

    protection from use.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Preservation
    radar Noun

    (RAdio Detection And Ranging) method of determining the presence and location of an object using radio waves.

    ROV Noun

    remotely operated vehicle.

    satellite imagery Noun

    photographs of a planet taken by or from a satellite.

    shaman Noun

    a religious leader who uses magic to treat illnesses and help followers.

    sophisticated Adjective

    knowledgeable or complex.

    swath Noun

    path or line of material.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    tomb Noun

    enclosed burial place.

    unveil Verb

    to reveal or decode.

    zealous Adjective

    very enthusiastic or obsessive.