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Behind the Scenes with National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin

Albert Lin in front of a waterfall
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Albert Lin '05, '06, '08, a National Geographic explorer and UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute (QI) scientist, stands in front of the Cholon waterfalls during his quest to find the lost city of the Chachapoyas in Peru as part of a new show, "Lost Cities Revealed." (National Geographic for Disney/Alejandra Velez)

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Mika Elizabeth Ono of UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute (QI) caught up with National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin, a QI associate research scientist, on the occasion of his new show, “Lost Cities Revealed.” Episodes of the six-part series are premiering on National Geographic, Hulu and Disney+ channels this fall before airing worldwide. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

ALBERT LIN: It’s funny how, when I look back on my career now, I see everything that I get to do nowadays really did all start at QI. I feel so grateful. Where should we begin?

MIKA ELIZABETH ONO: Why don’t you start by telling me about the new show.

LIN: It’s called “Lost Cities Revealed,” and it’s the evolution of everything that I’ve done up to this point. We’re applying all sorts of technology and remote sensing tools, like LIDAR [from Light Detection and Ranging] and ground-penetrating radar, that I was learning about and using while at QI, working with folks like [cyber-archaeologist] Tom Levy.

I don’t know how many documentaries I’ve made up until this point, but there have been quite a few. The whole ambition has been increased—the scale and the scope of where we’re going, the cities we’re trying to find, the places we’re looking. We’re working with archaeologists around the world, ranging from the jungles of Chiapas to the deserts of Sudan. In this latest iteration, we amplify our approach. So that’s more time with the technology, looking for more significant discoveries.

We end up in six different locations. We go to the Highlands of Scotland, where we investigate the footprint of a kingdom of people that were known as the Picts, painted warriors that fought off the Romans. We’re out in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, with Joel Palka and his team of archaeologists, and we think that we’ve stumbled across some of the earliest origin cities of the Maya. We’re in the mountains of Peru doing a story on the Cloud Warriors, who were contemporary to the Inca. In Sudan, we’re trying to find, and really define, the capital city of the Kushites, the Kingdom of the Kush. In Oman, we are looking at the story of the Magani people who hyper-fueled the Bronze Age. In Israel, we’re mapping a global city the Canaanites built in the face of 100-year drought that was taking down other ancient civilizations.

All these different locations are part of this big adventure, and they’ve been picked to highlight certain aspects of our humanity that are universal, like themes of resilience or working together, or how we organize ourselves.

ONO: What has your personal experience been making those documentaries?

LIN: It’s fun hanging out at helicopters, descending into caves and rafting down the headwaters of the Amazon. But it does get intense at times. I’ve gotten packed under a boulder in Israel. We were tear gassed/bombed in Sudan. It feels like I’m in this full Indiana Jones kind of life. How did that actually start? In reflection, it all started in QI with folks like Tom Levy and [Director of QI] Ramesh Rao encouraging me to pursue this pretty unconventional dream. And now, decades later, I’m living it.

ONO: That’s amazing. How is it different or the same as what you expected back then?

LIN: It’s really wonderful to hear from people all over the world—the shows and the research with the archaeology community are meaningful on a personal level. I had a woman come up to me in the airport and start crying, saying that the work in Mexico and Guatemala had given her people stories of their past that were important to their identity. It’s been so deeply rewarding.

Collaborating with archaeologists, I’m tapped into the archaeology community in a way that is unique. Most projects are very deep, very specific, and those archaeologists are dedicating their lives to the study of those very important specific sites. But by getting this broad view, globally and through time, we start to get a sense of connection that is just starting to make sense to me now.

It’s looking for those connections across humanity that tell us more about how our ancient past—no matter where you’re from—is a shared history that’s living within us. You hear the cliche that our past tells us who we are today, so we can figure out where we’re going tomorrow. But having bounced around for a decade and a half now, almost since 2008, through time and all these different projects around the world, I’m just now really starting to get what that statement means.

ONO: Interesting. So what are the common threads across different societies that you’ve noticed?

LIN: At the very earliest of civilizations, in the places I’ve visited, there’s this deep parallel to spirituality and shamanism that exists in the foundations of any city. We often detach ourselves from those conversations when we think of the operation of our modern cities. But many of these earliest cities were essentially massive spiritual temples, built to worship the sun or the world, according to the observations of the universe that were being made at the time.

In Chiapas, we found this set of really early preclassic Maya sites with Joel Palka, Santiago [Juarez] and a few other archaeologists we worked with out there. We started to realize they were all aligned in a very specific way. But we couldn’t quite figure out what that alignment was until we started modeling, with all our LIDAR data, the sunrise and sunset over different times of the year to antiquity. We were able to see that the whole city was aligned to this cycle. Then, all of a sudden, Joel says, “Hey, try this date, August 15.” And it turns out that’s a perfect alignment. What’s that date? It’s the start of the Maya calendar. That’s pretty profound—a whole civilization oriented around the beginning of its clock.

With symbolism, ritual and buildings or structures, from our earliest civilizations to now, our physical world is constructed in some kind of marriage between the tangible and the intangible. I feel like we try to separate them a lot now. The Renaissance and the scientific age are very important, but they also created a schism between the two worlds.

ONO: It’s interesting that you see spirituality as a common thread. Do you see a struggle for survival against the elements, too?

LIN: Yeah, life. I was doing a story on the Canaanites, and we could see this huge 100-year drought in the bands of salt in the geological layers down in the Dead Sea. We looked at the civilizations that collapsed in the wake of that, and also looked at who made it to figure out what might have made that work. In a decades-long excavation, archaeologists had found this massive avocado-shaped city with exterior walls. They didn’t find a king’s palace, just these big banquet halls. And those big banquet halls were filled with vats of wine, massive piles. When we did our LIDAR scans, we found it was part of a much bigger city, with artifacts from all around that area of the world. So it was this place where people came together, across civilizations. We thought, “Hey, the people who made it were the ones who stuck together or started working globally to try to figure out how to share resources.”

ONO: So the documentaries explore deeper questions.

LIN: This journey, and this specific season, is an adventure. We’re on a quest, every single episode. It’s made for a public audience, a big one, a global one. It’s a different kind of storytelling than writing a research journal paper. But the expeditions are real. And the discoveries are done in tandem with archaeologists who have dedicated their lives to these places.

It’s remarkable to feel we’re alive in an Age of Discovery. I think, 100 years from now, people will look back and say, “Wow, that was an important time.” Tools like LIDAR and radar allow you to see through the trees or into the soil. Especially LIDAR feels like it’s as big of a deal for archaeology as the microscope was for biology and the telescope was for astronomy. I feel very lucky to be a part of telling that story.

ONO: As a three-time UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering alumnus [Ph.D., materials science and engineering ’08; B.S. and M.S., mechanical and aerospace engineering, ’05, MS ‘06], do you find that your education in engineering helps you?

LIN: Absolutely. Engineering is rooted in exploration, right? The National Geographic Society was co-founded by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, over 130 years ago. The role that technology and engineering has played in exploration for me, on a very personal level, has been that it unlocks hidden worlds. Engineering and technology allow you to invent or imagine the tools, or the way to use tools, that can let you go beyond barriers to new frontiers.  For me, that’s been how I’ve been able to exist as an explorer. Over my career, I’ve been able to do shows that have ranged from working with Will Smith on “Welcome to Earth,” where I was looking at the movement of time through unique lenses of camerawork, to all of this archaeology.

Not only did engineering help me, it was rooted in what started at QI. When QI was developing CISA3 [Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology] back in the day, I was sleeping on couches, trying to do whatever I could to get my foot in the door.  When Tom Levy was leading the cyber-archaeology charge, it was like, “Wow, that’s cool. I want to do that.” It was inspiration from what was happening in [QI’s] Atkinson Hall that truly got me started. My first project was built out of QI where I was launching the Valley of the Khans project as a freshly minted Ph.D. It’s only in a place like QI where somebody like Ramesh Rao would say, “Okay, go for it. Here’s a library card and a desk.” He used to call it a “hunting license.” He was like, “Here you go. Go hunting.” Awesome.

ONO: That’s great. We probably don’t have time to delve much into your work in psychedelics, but I did want to touch on the behind-the-scenes aspect of being a National Geographic explorer. It couldn’t all be glamour and celebrities, right?

LIN: I live out of a suitcase half the time. I’ll come home from the jungle covered in bug bites and scorpion bites, and have to go straight to softball practice for my daughter, scratching. Life on the frontier is intense. You wake up in a rainstorm on the side of a swollen river and you’ve got a huge centipede underneath you—ugh. Or there are times where you feel homesick, and that’s real, too. But it’s been great trying to figure it out. Every year, I ask my kids if I should keep on going, and they always say, “Yes, keep going, Dad!”

It has made it harder to stay grounded at home. I feel grateful for the research that’s been going on both at Project Lim[b]itless with the graduation of my student, and the center that was born out of my accident [that led to a leg amputation]. The Center for Psychedelic Research that I helped co-found based on my own phantom pain case study was launched out of the Clarke Center and now is at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, where its support is growing. The hope is that by combining science with lived experiences we may be able to help others who go through similar journeys down the road, and tap into knowledge that is actually both ancient and new.

Being on the road 30 to 40% of the year makes it makes it so that you have to think of your life as a global village, rather than a local one, which can have its ups and downs. But that’s why I think it’s important to really cherish the people that are close to you.

ONO: Is there anything else you think people need to know?

LIN: The show is more than a fun adventure ride. It’s meant to make a public audience—from kids to adults—remember that wonder, adventure and discovery are still very real. In fact, we live in an age of discovery because of the tools we’ve invented. And so it does feel to me that part of the footprint of QI is in publications or intellectual property, but also in the very concept of looking for the unknown. In the most visceral way, it’s part of what QI represents, and that that genesis for me has now resulted in a show that exists on National Geographic Channel, Disney+ and Hulu and is seen around the world. And I’m just so grateful for that.

ONO: Well, thanks so much for your time, and stay in touch.

LIN: Absolutely. I’ll always consider myself part of the QI family.

For more information on Albert Lin and “Lost Cities Revealed,” see the National Geographic and QI websites.

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