Mathematics Mentor

Mathematics Mentor

Sometimes parents are right.

Irene Fonseca had her heart set on becoming a painter. Her father was equally set — on mathematics.

During college, they compromised on architecture, but the Portuguese revolution spelled the closure of her local fine arts program. So she enrolled
temporarily in mathematics.

"After that, I was totally passionate about mathematics," said Fonseca, now a Carnegie Mellon University professor of the subject.  She was recently elected president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), the second female to hold the position in an organization with more than 13,000 individual and 500 institutional members.

"Both as a CMU faculty member and now as president-elect of SIAM, my main professional goal is training the next generation," explained Fonseca. "I put the major part of my effort every day into that, from getting more funding for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to bringing more young people into the area and encouraging their research. It's a big part of my life."

Her former doctoral student in the CMU/Portugal Program, Rita Goncalves Ferreira, is grateful.

"I feel very, very fortunate for having had the opportunity to have Professor Irene Fonseca as an educator and mentor for she shared with me her vast scientific and personal knowledge," said Ferreira (S'11), currently a visiting assistant professor at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

"You always want to work with the best. I grew up enormously, both mathematically and personally, while at CMU under her supervision. I admire her greatly — she is one of my role models."

Fonseca's particular expertise is in applied mathematics.

"You can also think about it as applicable mathematics," Fonseca noted. "The problems in which my group and I work are motivated by real life challenges."

The specific challenges that intrigue her fall into two primary areas — materials science and computer vision.

In the materials science arena, Fonseca assists engineers, scientists and physicists as they develop novel materials. Potential uses range from green energy to non-invasive surgical devices.

"The experimentalists have hypotheses about the ways in which these man-made materials will respond to external stimuli, like magnetic fields or compression," said Fonseca. "We try to validate them using mathematical tools. Sometimes you're successful and sometimes the theory tells us to consider changing the composition."

Her work with computer vision involves image reconstruction, such as assisting in the re-colorization of irreplaceable frescoes from an Italian chapel, bombarded during WWII.

In recognition of her significant contributions to the field, Fonseca has received knighthood in Portugal's Military Order of St. James.

And she's been conducting her research at CMU for the past 24 years.

"It's a wonderful environment, a unique place for the kind of work I develop with the resources we have and the extreme fluidity and flexibility," said Fonseca.

"If you want to do something that will have potential impact you are encouraged to pursue your dreams. It's a wonderful place to be."

Related Links: SIAM | MCS | Mathematical Sciences | Fonseca's Bio