Environmental engineering graduate student 'a source of inspiration' for family

Emmanuel Fonseca, a doctoral student in environmental engineering at Penn State, was the first in his family to go to college. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Emmanuel Fonseca, a doctoral student in environmental engineering at Penn State, is the first member of his family to attend college and strives to be an inspiration to his younger siblings through his own successes.

Fonseca’s mission in life has always been to contribute to solving some of the world’s biggest problems. In order to achieve these goals, he chose to double major in bioengineering and cognitive science during his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz to expand his array of knowledge as much as possible. He graduated in 2015.

After graduation, Fonseca worked for an environmental engineering firm in Santa Cruz, California, for two and a half years before realizing he wanted to further his education in environmental engineering.

“Once I started working in [environmental engineering], I definitely fell more in love with the field,” Fonseca said. “Water involves a lot of things, so ultimately, I think my interests continued because of how interdisciplinary it is and because it has a lot of real-world applications.”

Fonseca said that one mentor in particular sparked his interest in environmental engineering and in Penn State as a whole, Penn State Evan Pugh Professor and Stan and Flora Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering Bruce Logan.

“It wasn’t until I discovered Bruce Logan’s research involving microbes and water cleaning technologies that I became aware of environmental engineering,” Fonseca said.

To learn more about Logan and the environmental engineering industry, Fonseca attended a conference in 2016 at Stanford University. The conference was captivating and sealed the deal as to what field he would pursue in graduate school. Soon after, he submitted his application for the environmental engineering doctoral program at Penn State.

When Fonseca came for an in-person interview, he said he became even more impressed by Logan.

“He picked me up himself from the airport,” Fonseca said. “He’s a super down-to-earth guy, which is kind of contrasting to his magnitude as far as his field is concerned, so that blew me away at first, when he drove up in his little Prius to pick me up from the airport.”

Fonseca admitted that he was hoping he wouldn’t like it at Penn State when he came to interview, having grown up in San Diego, California.

“I’m 2,500 miles away from everything I’ve ever known, so it was not a light choice just to leave,” he said.

Ultimately, though, both Logan and Penn State won Fonseca over.

Emmanuel Fonseca presents on the influence of cholesterol and copper on Alzheimer’s disease. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

“I really appreciate [Logan’s] leadership style,” Fonseca said. “He has a very humble sort of style of leadership, but it’s not passive necessarily, either. He’s hands-off enough that there’s room for freedom, which I really appreciate, but he’s still very much present and aware of where you are in your work. He doesn’t make you feel forgotten. It’s pretty amazing how he puts so much effort into really giving each of his students as much attention as they need.”

Although Fonseca has found his own mentor in Logan, he himself has long been a mentor to his own family, especially his younger siblings.

Fonseca is one of five boys, the middle child, and the first of his family to attend college, let alone graduate school.

“I was raised by a single mom for 10 years until my stepdad came in the picture,” Fonseca said. “After my oldest brother didn’t graduate high school, my stepdad and my mom put in 110 percent effort to get me out of the more poverty-stricken neighborhood schools.”

He ended up attending high school in the suburbs of eastern San Diego.

“I was in a place where it was really hard to make irreparable mistakes,” he said. “Whereas if you’re in a more urban environment, it’s way too easy to end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that can have ripple effects for the rest of your life.”

By the time he graduated high school, Fonseca thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of school. His mother and stepfather had succeeded.

“I don’t go into a new challenge with the expectation of ending up somewhere comfortable and satisfied,” Fonseca said. “I am always looking for the next challenge. I don’t fear mistakes, I look forward to them. Every mistake is another place for growth.”

Due to his difficult upbringing, Fonseca said he feels more emotionally mature than many of his peers.

“I was financially independent by 19,” Fonseca said. “By the time I went [to college], in every sense of the word, I was an adult.”

Throughout his educational career, Fonseca has spent every day trying to honor the sacrifices his parents and grandparents made to allow him to obtain these opportunities.

“Four to six months before I officially decided to take the double major, my grandfather passed away,” Fonseca said. “Because of how chaotic my early childhood was, there were very few examples of unconditional love from a male role model that I experienced, and my grandfather was like 50 percent of that.” 

When he passed, Fonseca said he began reflecting on what he was doing and why. That sense of duty to his family inspired him to get to where he is today.

He believes it’s now his duty to lead his family and motivate them to go further.

“I do my best to be a source of inspiration and stability in my family,” Fonseca said. “A lot of them still grew up in those poverty-stricken neighborhoods. You leave your traditional educational system like high school, you leave it hating school, so it’s hard to convince them to consider more school. I’m happy that I was able to be there and be a positive symbol of what an education can do for you.”

Following in Fonseca’s footsteps, his younger siblings have begun their undergraduate academic careers, thanks to Fonseca’s guidance and support.

Fonseca is concluding his first year as a doctoral student in environmental engineering, where he works on microbial electrolysis cells and microbial fuel cells in the lab. He hopes to use the knowledge he’s gained from his studies toward significant global issues where he can influence worldwide change.

Last Updated May 20, 2019