Agnes Scott College

Irene Fonseca

Irene Fonseca

July 10, 1956 -

Irene Maria Quintanilha Coelho Da Fonseca was born in Lisbon, Portugal, on July 10, 1956. She received her Licenciatura in Mathematics at the University of Lisbon in July 1980. With the assistance of a Fulbright travel fellowship and a Gulbenkian fellowship, she came to the United States to study mathematics at the University of Minnesota, where her brother-in-law was also pursuing his PhD in mathematics. Fonseca earned her Master of Science degree from Minnesota in 1983 and her PhD in 1985. Her thesis was on Variational Methods for Elastic Crystals, written under the supervision of David Kinderlehrer [abstract]. Parts of this thesis were published in the Archive for Rational Mechanics and Analysis (vol. 97, no. 3, 1987, pp189-220.)

From 1985 to 1987 Fonseca held a Postdoctoral position in Paris VI (Paris, France) and at the École Polytechnique (Palaiseau, France). She then came back to the United States as an assistant professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University and was promoted to full professor in 1989. In 2003 she was appointed the first Mellon College of Science Professor of Mathematics. Fonseca is also the director of the Center for Nonlinear Analysis at Carnegie Mellon.

Irene Fonseca delivered the 2006 AWM-SIAM Sonia Kovalevsky Lecture at the SIAM Annual Meeting. This invited lecture is intended to highlight significant contributions of women to applied or computational mathematics. The SIAM citation about Fonseca reads:

In recognition of her fundamental contributions and leadership in analysis and applied mathematics, especially in nonlinear partial differential equations and the calculus of variations. With applications from materials science to image reconstruction, her work includes nearly 100 papers which have set new directions and challenges. Her notable service record includes boards of several major institutes, international meetings, and publication and professional societies. She has initiated programs to attract young researchers, and her former postdocs and students can be found at distinguished institutions. She is an inspiration to the entire mathematics community, especially to the women's mathematics community.
A press release from Carnegie Mellon about Fonseca's AWM-SIAM invitation states that:
Fonseca's research is centered on the calculus of variations, geometric measure theory and partial differential equations. It is motivated, in part, by the study of properties of novel man-made materials and by issues in imaging. Her ability to introduce and apply new mathematical techniques to the materials sciences complements her work as director of the Center for Nonlinear Analysis. She is also dedicated to promoting mathematical studies beyond the undergraduate years. Fonseca seeks to help undergraduates understand the many opportunities afforded to them by pursuing graduate study and research in mathematics. In addition, her efforts in forming affiliations with other institutions provide graduate and postdoctoral students the maximum amount of opportunities to collaborate and network on an international level.

Fonseca has a strong international presence in the mathematics community. She participates on the boards of several major international universities and research centers, and in 1997 she was bestowed knighthood in the Military Order of St. James (Grande Oficial da Ordem Militar de Sant'Iago da Espada) by the president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio. This order is generally reserved for accomplishments in cultural fields. In Fonseca's case, the award also recognized her contributions to scientific progress in the European Union. She received a Women of Distinction Award in Math and Technology from the Western Pennsylvania Girl Scouts Trillium Council in 2004. The award recognized her leadership and accomplishments, as well as her efforts in encouraging young women to pursue research in mathematics.

On her website at Carnegie Mellon, Fonseca wrote that "My research interests lie in the areas of continuum mechanics, calculus of variations, geometric measure theory and partial differential equations. Recent work has been focused on the search for effective or relaxed energies, and on the study of existence, regularity, oscillatory and hysteretic behavior of solutions of (non convex) variational problems associated with materials instabilities, phase transitions, plasticity, nucleation and growth of phases, fracture and defects in solids. The applications which guide me in this program arise from the analysis of mathematical models for computer vision and imaging, as well as for novel man-made materials such as shape memory alloys, ferroelectric, magnetic and magnetostrictive materials, composites, liquid crystals, and thin films. The mathematical challenges lie in the description of the dynamics and evolution of microscopic structures and of phenomena that occur at vastly different temporal or spatial scales. They require recently developed mathematical tools and the introduction of new mathematical techniques."

Irene Fonseca has written over 80 papers. A book, Degree Theory in Analysis and Applications, co-authored with Wilfrid Gangbo at Carnegie Mellon University, was published by Oxford University Press in 1995 [Table of Contents]. In 2012 she began a term as president-elect of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an international professional society for applied mathematicians, with a two-year term as president starting in 2013.

In 2018 Fonseca was named the recipient of Carnegie Mellon's first Kavčić-Moura Professorship in Mathematics. This professorship was established to "provide sustained long-term support for scholars across the university whose breakthroughs and discoveries have the potential to impact the world where human life and technology meet."

In 2022 she received the International Society for the Interaction of Mechanics and Mathematics Senior Prize for "her outstanding contributions to the calculus of variations and the mathematics of materials science, along with her exemplary service to the mathematical community and for being an inspirational mentor and role model for female mathematicians." More information can be found in the article in the 2022 issue of Convergence from the Carnegie-Mellon University mathematics department.


  1. Irene Fonseca webpage at CMU
  2. SIAM Press Release, July 20, 2006
  3. Carnegie Mellon Math Department Press Release, 2011
  4. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  5. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  6. Author Profile at zbMath

Photo Credit: Photograph is used with permission of Irene Fonseca