When Dallas Fonseca decided his future career path involved science, he didn’t have far to look for a problem to solve. The central New York native had Onondaga Lake, infamous as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States, as a sort of inspiration.
Swimming and fishing had been banned for decades in the lake, which in recent years has undergone major cleanup efforts. But in 2010, another major environmental disaster gnawed at Fonseca: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in the worst marine oil spill in history, affecting ecosystems at sea and impacting over 1,000 miles of coastline.
“I was like OK, these keep happening,” Fonseca, now a junior at Ithaca College majoring in both biochemistry and mathematics, said of these types of ecological disaster. “With my scientific interest, I want to be somebody who does something about this.”
He hopes to one day harness molecular biology and genetics to shape new ways to combat pollution that rely on natural organisms to clean up damaged ecosystems. Last month he received two big boosts toward that goal.
Fonseca was named a recipient of a prestigious—and competitive—Barry Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most distinguished awards offered in the sciences. He was also selected to be part of the renowned—and also competitive—Amgen Scholars Program, and will spend this summer working in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Goldwater Scholarship is awarded annually to sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering. Fonseca will receive up to $7,500 to apply toward expenses in the 2017-18 academic year, and was one of only 240 selected for this year’s award.
Amgen is a biotech company that researches and develops new therapies for cancer, cardiovascular, and neurological diseases. The Amgen Scholars program places undergraduates like Fonseca in the labs at premiere research institutions that also include The University of California at Berkley, Harvard University, and Columbia University.
Fonseca’s experiences working in the labs of Te-Wen Lo, an assistant professor of biology at Ithaca College, certainly made him a strong candidate for these honors. The techniques and tools he’s been able to utilize in her lab include the cutting-edge CRISPR/Cas-9, which allows researchers to essentially edit genes in their test subjects—in this case the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans.
Fonseca is using the technique to examine two specific proteins within the worm. While very similar in structure, the two proteins dictate distinct functions within the organism based on the RNA they are able to bind with. The research is examining whether the binding section of one of the proteins can be cut out and replaced to function like the other protein.
"If you make a change in a similar protein, will it fix a broken second protein?” Fonseca said. Such understanding could ultimately help inform new treatments for human diseases.
Fonseca has worked with Lo since the second semester of his freshman year. He credits her with help as he revised draft after draft of his application materials for the Goldwater Scholarship. “[Knowing Te-Wen] is definitely one of the most amazing outcomes that have come of me being an Ithaca College student," Fonseca said.
Of the award itself, he said: “It's my proudest accomplishment I've ever had in my entire life. And it's something that I will carry forward with me—especially applying to graduate school. I can now put on my resume that I'm a Barry Goldwater Scholar.”
As it happens, MIT is one of his top contenders for graduate school thanks to their Synthetic Biology Center. Among the work being done there is the exact sort of biological engineering Fonseca hopes to be involved in one day to clean up damaged ecosystems.
"To just have people who actually do the thing that I want to do as a career in the vicinity, and people that I can go network with and hear their stories—where they had challenges and how they overcame their struggles—I think is going to be monumental for me,” he said of the internship at MIT.