In eighth grade, I had a teacher who taught ecology and biology, two separate courses. He made us think and made class exceptionally interesting. In Portugal, we have to decide on an area of studies (Science vs. Humanities) before the beginning of ninth grade, so by age 13 I was already in the Science tract and knew that I would do something related to biological studies as a career. Of course, as is common in my country, I also began learning French and English in elementary school, and knowledge of multiple languages have enriched my life ever since.
To start with, I wanted to be a veterinarian. But then my father took me to the local market, pointed at all of the meat, and asked, “Do you want to spend your life inspecting meat?” In Portugal, the entire industry of small pets was not really developed yet and city veterinarians mostly inspected raw meat.
The influence of women in Portuguese science has been very large for a long time and the female: male ratio in researchers is one of the highest in the World. I had many female professors. It was never a question to me that I would be able to become one.
I started on that path by obtaining a research bachelors degree in Biology. Dr. Manuel Simoes Graca, a Teaching Assistant who later went on to get his PhD at Sheffield College in the UK, became my mentor. He was developing the use of aquatic organisms as pollution indicators. I have always worked with insects because they are great experimental subjects. Choosing to work
D. Fonseca collecting aquatic insects in a mountain stream, the headwaters of the Alva river in Portugal, age 19.
with insects was not hard - the hard part was deciding what questions to ask.
When I finished my undergraduate education, I was honored to be hired by the University of Coimbra, my Alma Matter, as a teaching/research assistant. This is a tenure track position in my country leading to a Masters and then a PhD. Among other teaching assignments, I became a teaching assistant for an American Professor, Dr. Richard Bowker from Alma College, MI, that was doing a sabbatical at the University of Coimbra. He advised me to come to the United States, take some coursework, and gain experience. I went to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to take some summer courses. I loved it! I was so awed by the easy rapport between students and professors here. I had a great time. And then it happened: I was offered a Master’s fellowship by Central Michigan University, which runs the Beaver Island Biological Station and then a PhD graduate assistantship at the University of Pennsylvania. I realized I did not want to go back to Portugal. So I quit the only “real” job I would have for over 15 years afterwards. Looking back, I wonder how I made such an important decision so easily. But I was in love with US Academia.
During my PhD I examined very basic ecological questions about blackfly larvae. Adult blackflies transmit river blindness in Africa. Blackfly larvae are millimeter long suspension feeders that live in fast flowing streams and depend for their survival on the local details of water flow, a chaotic high-energy environment. My PhD advisor, Dr. David Hart is an enthusiastic and careful researcher and I often see his influence on my lecturing style. I still enjoy thinking about how it must be like to live under a constant tornado of water (a high viscosity fluid for a very small animal) seeking to catch small morsels of food passing by. After I finished my PhD I learned molecular genetics during a two year Smithsonian post-doc fellowship at the National Zoo with Dr. Robert Fleischer. I developed molecular tools for studying the mosquitoes that transmit avian malaria to birds in Hawaii, and as it turns out transmit West Nile virus in the US. Then I received a 2-year National Research Council Associateship at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. My advisor was Dr. Richard Wilkerson. I spent an amazing month in Kenya near Lake Victoria studying the vectors and parasites responsible for the scourge of human malaria in Eastern Africa. Between 2000-2003 in collaboration with Dr. Fleischer as well as Dr. Laura Kramer, a virologist at the Wadsworth Center, NY, I obtained a significant amount of research funding. My husband, an immunologist, accepted a job at the University of Pennsylvania and the funding meant I was able to set up my own independent lab in Philadelphia at the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS). My first son was born in 2001 and the second in 2004. I was officially hired as a Curator at ANS in October 2004 and came to Rutgers in March 2007.
While I enjoyed my time at ANS very much, and I miss a short commute, I was craving the large University environment. I am getting my fill. Rutgers provides an amazing environment for establishing collaborations and getting new ideas. My projects at the newly created Center for Vector Biology at Rutgers are developing fast and we have just secured a large cooperative agreement with the US Department of Agriculture. This is a project with tremendous potential involving several Rutgers faculty and researchers from USDA and Brandeis University and I am very excited to be part of it.
The greatest obstacle in my career so far has actually been my own personality. I strongly believe in having multiple plan B’s in case things do not go according to plan. That means I always have a large number of projects going at the same time and some get left behind at times. I guess I thrive on the frisson of always being late with something.
I have had very positive female role models. Almost without exception, all my female relatives worked in jobs ranging from chemical engineering to pre-school teachers. Being a career woman never seemed strange to me, it was the normal thing to do. However, my father was never good at accomplishing household chores and my mother did the majority of cleaning, cooking, etc. helped by my older brothers and me. My mother showed me the way by raising her two sons to be close to the “ideal” husband/father. They taught me to change baby diapers. I made clear to my husband early on that equal opportunity starts at home. It worked.