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Love of science becoming cool

Pardon me, but my inner geek is showing.

The stories I love from science fiction are becoming science fact, and it’s thrilling to watch.

Just last week, for example, I attended a dinner honoring a scientist for his discoveries. He used technology only dreamed about a few short decades ago to explore unchartered territory.

To borrow a phrase from Capt. James T. Kirk — he boldly went where no man has gone before — at least not for several centuries.

The scientist, Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, was recognized by the Desert Research Institute as the 27th recipient of its Nevada Medal for his “pioneering work in a new era of digital exploration and science education through public engagement.” He is the youngest research scientist and the first materials scientist and engineer to receive the medal.

Sounds rather boring, but Lin’s work and his presentation were anything but.

Creator and principal investigator of the Valley of the Khans Project, he has lead several expeditions in Mongolia using cutting-edge technology to explore some of the most remote parts of the world, usually with less-than-modern accommodations.

In nonscientific terms, Lin called upon the power of the Internet where thousands of people from all walks of life were able to interpret pictures taken from drones to search the “forbidden zone” for the tomb of Genghis Khan.

A National Geographic explorer, Lin said his work is based on the fact that curiosity is a human tradition, and we innovate to fulfill that tradition.

The Santa Cruz, Calif., native began his quest after earning his Ph.D. He said he felt lost after earning his degree because “one thing they don’t teach is what do you do next.”

Recalling stories his grandfather told him about their family coming from the north, he left everything and everyone behind and joined the nomads of Mongolia, who welcomed him and taught him about their way of life and more about Genghis Khan. Lin admits that before he started his quest, everything he knew about the “man who changed the course of history” he learned from “Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

“I wanted to bridge the gap between Bill and Ted and history,” he said.

When he returned from his first visit to Mongolia, Lin was living in his car while creating the highest-resolution satellites in the world. He created a website where people could “throw their thoughts on the collective map.” He said he had more than 2.5 million tags, representing 18 cumulative years of experience, which he used to determine where to visit on his next trip.

The “crowdsourcing” technology he created has other uses. It has been instrumental in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 as well as during other disasters.

Lin said his work has sparked a new model for engaging people in science.

“I call him Indiana Jones 2.0,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval, who attended DRI’s dinners in Las Vegas and Reno in Lin’s honor as well as some of his appearances at local schools.

Sandoval said he was excited by what Lin had accomplished, but even more by what he is likely to accomplish.

In addition, the governor spoke highly of DRI and the work of its scientists and scholars.

“We’re fortunate to have a research institute such as DRI in Nevada — both in Southern and Northern Nevada.”

DRI is one of the foremost authorities in the world on water management and people come from around the planet to study with its scientists.

Sandoval said the institute’s scientists have been able to accompany state officials on trade missions to Mexico, China and Israel and help with water issues.

“It complements our economic development as well,” Sandoval said.

Maybe it was those science fiction tales written years ago that inspired the discoveries by DRI’s scientists or new methods of research such as those developed by Lin. With enough curiosity to create new inventions and ways of doing things, perhaps we all will be experiencing an excellent adventure of our own in the near future, and we won’t have to apologize when our inner geeks come out.

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