This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In the Gobi, dinosaur fossils abound. Scientists have discovered 76 dinosaur genera—one-seventh of those known to science—in this Mongolian desert. Yet few Mongolians are aware of these treasures. “Fossils leave the country,” says paleontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin, “and knowledge leaves with them.”
Bolortsetseg joined her first excavation as a cook, even though she had a master’s degree and the support of her father, Minjin Chuluun, one of Mongolia’s first paleontologists. But she managed to sidestep meal preparation to look for fossils—so successfully that she was invited to enroll in a joint Ph.D. program with the American Museum of Natural History and City University of New York.
After earning her degree, Bolortsetseg didn’t want to return to a place where she felt scientists weren’t valued—unless she could change it. She decided to help fellow Mongolians learn about their natural heritage and fight to protect it, establishing the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs. At first the institute was little more than a name; now it sends a mobile dinosaur exhibit around the country. Bolortsetseg—now a National Geographic emerging explorer—is working on creating seven permanent museums, one in each region where fossils have been found. She has also helped repatriate more than 30 scientifically significant fossils: “Reversing the movement of fossils out of the country will bring the knowledge back.”