Seminars on Science
Dr. Francesca Sintoni


These are Protoceratops andrewsii, Jenny's favorite dinosaur, although not in the lineage that leads to birds. Protoceratops are often known as the "sheep of the Mezozoic."
Dr. Sintoni exploring a rock face in Italy. ©AMNH

Dr M. Francesca Sintoni came to the American Museum of Natural History in 2004 as a postdoctoral research scientist at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences until 2006. After that she returned to her native country, Italy, dedicating herself to the teaching of science and geography, and to scientific research.

Francesca was born in a little town in northern Italy. “I had a wonderful childhood and because my family was living in such a little town I was free to be outdoors at all times, more like a little boy than a girl, my mother used to say.” Francesca’s mother, having been an athlete, wanted her kids involved in a lot of sports, which is why Francesca started early with swimming, tennis, ballet and skiing. The family used to go skiing to the Dolomites every year, Francesca recalls,” during those vacations I always felt extremely lucky for having the opportunity of being in a such a amazing natural environment.” At the age of 14, Francesca moved with her sister to a private language high school in Florence, because, according to her family, she had to experience a bigger and more dynamic environment. During the same time she started sailing. “I remember I used to spend every weekend at the ocean.  I love the ocean and the wind; for me it represents freedom and the possibility of going back to a closer connection with nature.”

When she was 17 years old she went on a trip to Aeolian Islands (Sicily).  She reminisces about that trip, “It changed my life, I was so impressed and shocked by the power of active volcanoes that on the last day of vacation returning from a night spent at the top of the Stromboli volcano, I firmly decided the course of my future studies: Volcanoes!!”

Francesca continued her education at the University of Florence where she took courses in petrology, geochemistry, mineralogy, geophysics and of course vulcanology. During those years she nurtured her interest in volcanoes, going on many field trips to the Italian volcanoes, Vulcano and Stromboli. “Field trips were my favorite experience at the university, because I really enjoy the contact with nature and sometimes I think with some nostalgia about the geologists of the nineteenth century, who used to spend so much time in the field and not in labs as we do today.” During those years she was involved a survey project on the Stromboli volcano, spending many months on the slope of this active volcano. ”Stromboli is one of the best places on the earth for studying volcanoes, because it has an explosion about every 15 minutes for the last 2000 years, and it is easily accessible. We collected seismic data for many years, which favored a better understanding of its behavior.”

The last years at the university were devoted to her degree thesis (laurea), which focused on particular mantle rocks (peridotites) from Ethiopia. “For my thesis I decided to change the subject somewhat and to focus on the volcanic activity of the past. My tutor had collected some samples of lava a few years ago, which included peridotite nodules from the Ethiopian rift, so I immediately became interested in looking at rocks coming from the earth’s mantle, as they were incredibly different from any other kinds of rocks I’d seen before. In particular I liked to observe them under the microscope and to reconstruct their history from the textural-mineralogical observations. Scientists are curious about these rocks because they are rarely present on earth and because they are literally samples of the earth’s mantle.”

After her degree she decided to continue working on scientific research. She says “this decision was difficult because in a certain way I wanted to have financial independence as soon as possible and at the same time I wanted to go on with research.” The solution to this doubt came from a four-year grant that she received from the Italian government for working on her PhD project. Geologists often find inspiration from the direct observation of nature. This happened to Francesca during a field trip to the island of Elba (Italy), she remembers. “Elba Island is a unique place in Italy; it is like a mosaic of several geological processes acting in the same place but at different times. All types of rocks are present there, from sedimentary to magmatic and metamorphic. I became particularly interested on an area at the margin of a pluton, which is rich in large gray-black blobs of magma surrounded by granite rocks, meaning that two different magmas met somewhere beneath the earth surface before the pluton emplacement. Those two magmas or fluids were also partially immiscible, like if we mix oil with water.”

The mixing between different magmas is also an important feature of volcanic eruptions, in fact it has been recognized as a triggering event during volcanic explosions. “This research was challenging, because a lot of features of the magma mixing process have already been recognized by the scientific community, but not everything, in particular the chemical exchange that takes place when two different magmas meet together inside the earth, this is only partially explained.”

After completing her PhD, Francesca had the opportunity to go back to the studying of active volcanoes, with a project regarding the Vesuvius, she said “I was so happy to be involved once again in studying an active volcano, and of having a job in a location as amazing as the American Museum of Natural History in New York." Francesca collaborated with James D. Webster (Curator, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at AMNH) for two and half years at the AMNH. “For me, working at the museum and with Dr. Webster and my other colleagues has been an incredible opportunity for growth as a scientist.”

They were interested in understanding the behavior of sulfur together with other volatile components in alkaline volcanic systems like that of the Vesuvius. They had been performing complex hydrothermal experiments which sometimes were frustrating. In fact, she remembers “a fluid leak in the system can happen after three weeks of experimenting, canceling all our efforts. I remember once we looked for a fluid leak in our equipment for weeks and at the end, when we finally discovered it, Jim opened a bottle of champagne to mark the occasion.  I think during those years I learned a lot about the capacity of scientists being flexible in their thoughts and open to accepting a new reality that maybe is far from what was believed before, and also of being able to give recognition to every small result.”

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