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Maggots in crew member's eyes

An Emerging Explorer of the National Geographic Society, Dr Albert Yu-Min Lin (left) says it is important to be curious.
An Emerging Explorer of the National Geographic Society, Dr Albert Yu-Min Lin (left) says it is important to be curious.PHOTO: ERIK JEPSEN

American scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin was in Mongolia to find Genghis Khan's tomb when a member of his team woke up with maggots in his eyes

You may find Albert Yu-Min Lin, an Emerging Explorer of the National Geographic Society (NGS), galloping on horse-back in Mongolia or analysing data in a cutting-edge laboratory.

Both activities are part of his quest to find the long-lost tomb of Genghis Khan - the fearsome Mongolian conqueror of the 12th century.

Dr Lin, 35, an American research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, will be coming to Singapore on Aug 30 to give a ticketed talk about the compelling evidence he has found of the tomb's location in Mongolia, as well as about his other technology-enabled quests for Mayan sites in Guatemala and the missing MH370 plane.

Speaking to The Straits Times over the telephone from San Diego, where he is based, Dr Lin says the stories he will tell are reminders that the age of exploration is still here.

"The world is full of wondrous things and magical uncharted landscapes about which we should be curious. We can now apply technology in a way that they couldn't 100 years ago," says Dr Lin, who holds a PhD in materials science and engineering.

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He uses a host of high-tech noninvasive tools - such as thermal- imaging systems, ground-penetrating radars and remote sensors - to aid his search.

This is necessary as many Mongolians believe any disturbance of the sacred tomb could trigger an apocalyptic curse.

"This technology allows us to learn without breaking traditions set by people living there," says Dr Lin, whose research is funded by the NGS/Waitt Institute for Discovery, the National Geographic Expeditions Council and the university as well as industry and private support.

He has also benefited from the National Geographic Society's Emerging Explorer Programme, which recognises inspiring scientists, conservationists and innovators and supports each with a $10,000 grant to achieve his full potential.

Apart from relying on technology, Dr Lin has also harnessed the power of people - by crowdsourcing and having 28,000 volunteers analyse millions of satellite images in search of the tomb. When large groups of people agree on "hot spots" of interest, his team would investigate those areas.

"Crowdsourcing is the ultimate way of getting people to understand and be part of the whole process," says the father of two young children.

1. You use a lot of tools that are quite technical. Is your show just for the converted?

No, I think the show is much more about the human experience of being curious and overcoming obstacles. It's about going into the unknown with a sense of purpose - and emerging with that feeling that we are all explorers.

2. What has been the biggest problem you have faced in your research?

I always think of it as more of an opportunity. Archaeology requires physically searching, but 800 years ago, Genghis Khan decreed that the mountain and its surroundings were forbidden to anyone outside the royal family.

People still pay tribute to this and have strong beliefs that nothing should be disturbed physically.

By using technology, we can get over some of the challenges and look at ways of exploring that are more respectful to those cultures.

3. What fascinates you most about Genghis Khan?

The guy came from nothing. By any measure, you would never expect him to be the one to change the world. But in one lifetime, he was able to create the largest empire in history.

What interests me most was what allowed him to have that kind of leadership and so much loyalty in the people around him that they still worship him today.

4. You have trekked solo through places such as Pakistan, Tibet, Cambodia and Mongolia. Which has made the most impact on you?

Everywhere I go is so different. But there are also unifying similarities like how the spirit of the human condition is positive.

The nomadic culture in Mongolia had a profound impact on what was important to me. I lived for several summers with a nomadic family who taught me so much. As a nomad, you live by the land.

When you go back to city life, you realise your "priorities" are not that important and things you took for granted are fundamental.

5. Have you encountered any danger on these adventures?

Once in Mongolia, one of our crew woke up with maggots in his eyes, so the solution was a slab of raw meat on his face to make them move away from his eyes.

These expeditions are adventures into the unknown. There are untravelled landscapes and things trying to kill you.

But you can also get hurt just walking down the street. I'd rather not fear the world of nature, but embrace it.

6. As a National Geographic explorer, you sound like a real-life Indiana Jones. Is the day-to-day as exciting?

It's pretty wonderful. My greatest joy has been spending every day with my main job as a scientist.

To be curious and to follow that curiosity is awesome. The day- to-day is fun.

7. What are the advantages and disadvantages of crowdsourcing?

The human mind's ability to understand, perceive and look for patterns is powerful - maybe more so than computer algorithms. The most powerful thing is that we can solve big data challenges.

Crowdsourcing, especially in science, also creates a channel for people to participate in the frontiers of questions we are trying to answer.

One challenge may be that we get bored after a while, so maybe we don't do as much as a computer. But the downside - I've never thought about it that way. What's better than people working together?

8. How would you like to be remembered?

I want to be remembered as a good father. My kids are so important to me - they're the future explorers. I'd like to be remembered in their eyes as an explorer.

My parents were incredible and also scientific explorers - my father is an astrophysicist and my mother took on an adventurous life with him.

I'd like to be remembered like the ones who inspired me - never to have given up my passion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'Maggots in crew member's eyes'. Print Edition | Subscribe