3 Questions to Francesco Montemagno

What skills you take in the field.

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Francesco Montemagno, a doctoral student and microbiologist at Giovannelli Lab, participated in the “Aeolian Islands 2022” sampling campaign. The expedition took place over 9 days, during which 15 different sites were sampled, including pools and fumaroles on the islands of Panarea, Stromboli, Vulcano and Lipari. An expedition to extreme environments, however, is not just about “tools of the trade” - such as Falcon and diving fins - but also about skills, feelings and training. Francesco shares his memories related to the expedition, but also about all the skills he brought with him.

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Francesco, why did you choose the Aeolian Islands for your sampling?

We chose the Aeolian Islands as the sampling area for the Coevolve project because of their volcanic origin. In these islands there are active volcanoes, gas and fluid emissions that come from the subsurface, bringing up important information about the subsurface environment. The expedition in August 2022 was a mix of terrestrial and marine sampling. We looked for sites using old maps and asked locals, and also sampled sites that our group had already sampled in other years.

Alt text The 5 senses allow us not only to perceive the world around us but probably also to remember better, and memory, for a scientist, is a precious resource. So taking into consideration touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste, name one of your memories of the Aeolian Islands in relation to each of them.

Yes, the 5 senses are essential tools for a scientist, especially on the field, and more than often they give important information on the environment, and give essential information about the safety of a place. Trying to remember the sampling, I would say that my senses were involved in this way. The sense of smell was strong for the classic rotten egg whiff of sulfur in the thermal mud pool on the island of Vulcano. Touch as far as the heat that came out of the vents when the thermometer was brought close to take the temperature. I remember that walking near the crater of Vulcano. I was watching the gasses that rose along the profile of the crater, and when the wind changed for a moment, they almost completely enveloped us, making everything white. Fortunately, we were all equipped with gas masks. One of the first days in Vulcano, we sampled a gas emission that was about ten meters from the beach. The intensity of the gas coming out was very strong, making huge bubbles. Also sounds are involved, for example, the sound of the bubbles forming and breaking was the soundtrack of that sampling day. Finally, there is the taste. I remember the taste of rubber and salt in my mouth after that wonderful dive at Bottaro. It was just a few meters deep, but I will never forget being surrounded by that field of bubbles coming up from the ground.

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Imagine you are preparing your backpack for your expedition. Inside you can place not only some “tools of the trade” but also a set of skills, feelings, and moods. What would you take with you?

When we prepare for a sampling expedition, we prepare a long list of tools and instruments we may need. Each time, I always bring with me a set of fundamental tools that never change, but then each site may require a different set of tools, based on the location and other characteristics of the place. Beyond tools and instruments, that maybe will change in time or with the sampling strategy, in my backpack, I would definitely include a skill that I consider fundamental: physical endurance. Often, when we show the places we go sampling, people are amazed and ask us to come with us even just as assistants. They don’t see how physically heavy a day of work can be when sampling in extreme environments. In the Aeolian Islands, we had to walk under the sun even during the hottest hours, with a backpack full of instruments or kilograms of samples, climb a volcano at 6 in the morning, and then spend the afternoon looking for sites to sample along the coast. In the evening, we returned to our base, process the samples, and prepare the equipment for the next day. The second skill that I consider essential in the field is inventiveness. Sometimes, we reach remote sites that probably we will never have the opportunity to visit again. If we forget that special tool in the car, or at home, we have to be able to work anyway. If something breaks, and we are far from anywhere, we have to be able to use what we have and still make it work. Tools may change, and instruments and cars can break, but you still have to finish your tasks.

Alt text Fotos: Jacopo Pasotti, 2023