A New Age of Exploration

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Within the walls of UCSD’s Atkinson Hall, in a design prototyping lab on the first floor, various teams of five to 10 students can be found developing new technologies that may one day end up on the pages of National Geographic. This possibility is within reach for the students — and has been achieved in the past — through the UCSD National Geographic Society Engineers for Exploration program, a platform that allows students to engage in real-world engineering projects for scientific exploration. The program was founded in 2009 by UCSD research scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin, who now serves as a co-director alongside UCSD engineering professors Ryan Kastner and Curt Schurgers.

Multiple projects, which range from robotic cameras that track the movement of animals to remote-control airplanes that mimic and guide the flight of condors, are currently underway. Roughly 30 active participants — all of them students — have taken the reins of these projects. According to Kastner, some devote as many as 20 to 30 hours a week to their projects, most of which are designed to monitor animals within their natural habitats.

“The interesting thing is that the students don’t get paid for this,” Lin said. “Some of them get credit for it, but it isn’t like they’re doing this as a requirement. It’s entirely our out of passion. It’s entirely out of the ambition to try to do something bigger — to change the expectations of what you can do with a degree in engineering.”

Lin said that he views the students in the program as “the next generation of pioneers.” 

The students have acquired projects across multiple years, continuing work on projects that were started by past generations of participants in the program. 

“They’ve taken these ideas and have made unbelievable things that have been deployed all over the world,” Lin said. “We’ve had tools that were used in National Geographic magazine shoots. We’ve had things that were sent out to Jordan for archaeological digs. We’ve had students who’ve been hired by the National Geographic Society and now work in the headquarters in the robotic imaging group, building things and going out on expeditions with explorers from all over the world.”

Though many of their projects have seen success in the field, the entire program stems from the Valley of the Khans Project, an undertaking that Lin initiated to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan in Mongolia using advanced remote sensing technology.

But according to Lin, it was essentially his chance encounter with an executive from the National Geographic Society that set everything in motion. Shortly after completing his Ph.D. at UCSD in 2008, Lin sold everything he owned except for his car to build his project and was in need of support for his scientific endeavor.

“I found out that one of the executives from National Geographic was going to be crossing campus to Price Center at lunchtime, because he was meeting with this guy, Maurizio Seracini, who was doing this work on the lost Leonardo [da Vinci piece],” Lin said. “So I basically found out his schedule and put on a suit, and I nailed him in the best five-minute pitch I ever did in my life. He gave me his number, and the next thing you know, a couple of months later, I was at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. presenting my project. It got support, and then it just blossomed from there.”

The partnership with the National Geographic Society, along with the student involvement in Lin’s project, gave rise to the UCSD NGS Engineers for Exploration program.

“The program started during the process of building this Valley of the Khans project to get students involved in helping me with this research we were doing in Mongolia,” Lin said. “It started as more of a necessity than anything else, because I was bootstrapping. I needed people to help me build things, so I had friends and students just building things out of interest. I had undergraduate students on my expeditions with me, because they’re the ones that have the most hands-on knowledge of how to build stuff.”

While the program promotes exploration worldwide, it also allows for local collaborations. For their projects, students are now working with the San Diego Zoo, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and the California Wolf Center.

Lin said that it is the real-world application and hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology that brings value and appeal to the program.

“It’s not academic,” Lin said. “We’re not trying to make a teaching experience for anybody here. We’re trying to do real-world engineering. We’re actually really trying to push the frontiers of exploration.”

Lin explained how the program strives to define the new age of exploration as one that is only limited by the imagination, and, of course, the responsibility of ethical conduct. He believes that new technology allows for more thorough observation and non-invasive exploration. This, he said, is what constitutes the essence of the program.

While the student-run projects have opened up many possibilities — including whale shark observation and 3-D mapping of underwater archaeology, some assignments have been abandoned along the way.

“I think one of the biggest issues is just consistency with the projects,” Kastner said. “Students that work on this — they work hard, but they graduate. We’ve had some other projects that I wouldn’t say failed, but they’ve stopped because we just didn’t have anybody coming up and carrying on that project.”

But in any case, Lin said that the most rewarding aspect of the program is witnessing the workings of human curiosity.

“For me, I truly believe that our human curiosity is what defines both what could possibly destroy us and also what could advance us in the future,” Lin said. “As long as we choose to do things that are meaningful and ethical, then curiosity can lead us into pretty awesome directions.”

Engineers and scientists, Lin asserted, are the stewards of this curiosity, and according to Lin, building technology should not be arbitrary, but rather an act of exploration to learn more about humanity and our surrounding world.

More scientific exploration through the program will continue over the summer.

“We actually just got a big grant from the National Science Foundation,” Lin said. “They’re  supporting us to get students from all over the country that are coming in this summer to do research as part of this program, so that’s going to be exciting.”

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