Curiosity and determination: the example of Amalia Ercoli-Finzi

Today I came across this nice piece on one of my favorite Italian columns on women. The following article is extracted from a book called “Il senso delle donne per la scienza” by Maria Luisa Agnese and tells the story of Amalia Ercoli-Finzi, an Italian scientist who is deeply involved in the amazing space mission Rosetta. The article made me aware that not only Amalia is a successful engineer, but she is also mother of five children.

Disclaimer: the article was originally written in Italian language. I am the author of this English translation and since I am not a professional translator, please take into account that my choice of words may have altered some passages, both in writing style or intended meaning. If so, I sincerely apologise to the original author and the interviewee, and invite them to point out what to edit.


In the hall of the old storage building where the Polytechnic Aerospace Institute is, nearby the railway of Bovisa station, a tiny 78 year old lady greets an ex-student, now a teacher in Trento, and says: «Call me sometime, keep me updated on the satellites». Amalia Ercoli-Finzi, best known as the mother of the mission Rosetta, the spacecraft which seeks news in space, is like this: eager of anything new, used to support her ex-students around the world, and born to look forward. When she was young, she enjoyed to dismantle bicycles in order to understand how they worked («and then I struggled to build them back»), and she was disappointed as no one could explain to her how the electromechanic bell would work. Later she chose to study aerospace engineering, when girls were carefully dodging the subject, and she was the first woman to graduate in Italy: «Because that was the newest subject back then, and I love new things. Also, flying is a miracle still today, it is not a spontaneous thing.».

Amalia has always been a pioneer, even in the acrobatic way women of today cope in the working world, with daily juggling. When she married into a middle-class family, «with my husband’s sisters who did not work and could not understand why I wanted to», she soon realised she would have not given up anything, her passion nor family: «Family would have not been enough for me, I loved my kids but spending the whole day with them, with the slow pace of the women of good society, was simply not for me».

She had four boys and a girl, while working. The boys came one after another. «I changed 32 babysitters, no one could cope with four young boys. The girl was born after few years. «I used to put them on the highchairs and give a spoon of food to each, in turns. I was grating apples all the time. They would have eaten also the table legs.», Amalia recalls, with bright eyes and joyful spirit. She remembers the monumental shopping: 40 kilos of pasta, 30 kilos of rice, every time. They were well cared for, but not spoiled, there was no chance: «Because of the war, we knew what sacrifice was, what being afraid meant, not knowing what tomorrow would bring». Not even the girl – who was younger – was spoiled? «Cuddled, not spoiled. She played with dolls, as well as with Meccano. My mother-in-law claimed she would have dressed all kids in pink, because it is a color that brings light to the face, while light blue makes you pale. Let’s not isolate girls, they can become engineers or stay at home, it’s fine as long as they can choose.»

Careful with the husband: choose wisely.

How did she balance everything back when work-life balance was not even discussed? One could use the old expression “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”: for women who succeeded in balancing their passion and family, you can easily reverse the expression. First of all, choose the right husband, one could say. «My husband is a special companion, I met him during the university years and he became a successful civil engineer: it is no good when one lives under the shadow of the other. He is a wise man, with wide shoulders on which we always loaded family problems. He never changed a diaper, but he was always there to educate our children.» Another ace in the hole for the strong Amalia was a good physical constitution, a peculiar DNA that allows her to sleep few hours, five or six on average. «When the children were small I was sleeping even four per night. While I sleep I also think, make lists for the following day, without taking notes. I count on my memory.» Still today she can remember 200 phone numbers by heart: «Brain is like a muscle, you have to exercise it».

Rosetta and the comet - image from
Rosetta and the comet - image from

The Rosetta Mission, what a feeling: when my drill woke up, I cried.

The "little drill" is a sixth child for Amalia. Properly speaking, it is a highly sophisticated drilling tool, scientifically named SD2, an Italian jem with diamond tip, platinum cells and zaphir lenses. However, to Amalia it is just her “little drill”, one of the instruments Italy employs to take part to the European project that investigates the material composition of the comet. Amelia cried when her tool woke up, after a 2 year and a half long sleep during which it kept Italy and the world breathless. «Everyone was impatiently waiting. After two years and a half we woke up. », she says “we”, like she was up there too, hibernated and then activated as the instruments were. Amalia is very proud of this and of the fact that Milan Polytechnic Institute has a piece of itself on a comet 450 million kilometers away. Even to get to the stars you need a lot of maths, but the beautiful and creative kind. «Mathematics is the tool that allows us to realize what we dream of» and who can celebrate it better than her, who once at school, with great spontaneity, corrected the solution of an equation of a professor, and she was right. «It was simply different from his, that’s all. »: like this, with modesty. With the same modesty she recalls that, it is true, maybe that year she had the top high-school graduation grade in Italy and in elementary school she was the quickest at computing. However, to make big scientific projects work, you need great organization and teamwork skills. «What is a woman at home? She’s the CEO of the family, with care and sharing skills, plus a company is like a successful family. This is why women are appreciated nowadays. We are kinder, less aggressive and play to the rules. We do not follow the war culture, but the one of life and future. Even in the workplace we do not want to have it all and now. All qualities that are considered good today. Our emotional intelligence allows us to understand the complex and multicultural society, to give individual attention to everyone, to discover everyone’s individual potential and help them.» Everyone has their own excellence, you just need to find out. Also, to Amalia it is important to teach girls they can succeed: «Not to be better than men, but for themselves, even though they have to fight because our society is not ready yet. However, some role models prove there is a chance, like Samantha (Cristoforetti)»

Featured image:

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

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