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 imagery, ground-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.”
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“All of it. I’m living my dream.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Nothing. I’m doing what I love.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“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.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . RESEARCH SCIENTIST
“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.”