Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

September 19, 2023

Legna Torres-Garcia reached for the stars and became a renowned research oceanographer at the U.S. Geological Survey, where she helps coastal communities deal with danger.


A SCUBA diver rests next to a large instrument, which sits on the sea floor.
Legna Torres-Garcia deploys oceanographic instrumentation to measure waves, currents, water temperature and water levels in Dorado, Puerto Rico in October 2022. This deployment will improve computer model accuracy related to total water level forecast. USGS Photo by David Thompson. 

Legna Torres-Garcia feels fortunate that she can do what she loves—scientific research on ocean circulation, waves and sediment transport—while also giving back to the community that shaped who she is. Her story, which is just as stirring as her work (ocean circulation pun intended), starts with a tenacious, inquisitive little girl growing up in Puerto Rico.

As a child, Torres-Garcia was always ready to discover new things, to find answers to the questions that popped into her curious mind. That curiosity and drive for answers is likely what drew her to science.

“I didn’t know which type of science I wanted to study, but I remember telling my dad that I always wanted to get a PhD. That I was certain about.”

Torres-Garcia credits her dad for giving her the courage to pursue her dreams and value education.

“No matter how difficult situations were growing up, he always ensured me that I would always have education. It was the only thing he could leave for me and my sisters, but it would stay with us forever. That meant a lot to me to know that no matter what decision I made, he was always going to have my back.”

Although she was attracted to science, it wasn’t until high school that she found the object of her educational desire.

“I had a great physics teacher in high school, and I became really passionate about it. That’s what made me decide to study physics.”

So, Torres-Garcia left home for the first time to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. It was here that her journey truly began.

“Being at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez solidified my love for science. I had the opportunity to get the feel for what research is all about.”

And she found a mentor who opened the door to that opportunity.

“I truly thank Dr. Chang, the director of the optics lab in the physics department. He gave me the opportunity to be part of his lab where I helped PhD students with their research. As part of the lab, I also got to work as an undergraduate researcher on the island Magueyes, off of La Parguera, on the south side of the island of Puerto Rico.”

Chang also helped Torres-Garcia land two prestigious internships sponsored by Johns Hopkins University to work with university scientists on the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer. At the time, Torres-Garcia spoke very little English, but she didn’t let that hold her back from her pursuit of science.

“At Johns Hopkins, I got to meet other scientists and really experience what the life as a scientist was like. With those opportunities and by opening doors, Dr. Chang allowed me to discover science in a different environment, he solidified my love for it.”

A scuba diver underwater with scientific equipment
Legna Torres-Garcia, when she was a USGS Graduate Research Assistant, installs a temperature logger on a coral reef in Dry Tortugas National Park. She and her team deployed a vertical array with temperature loggers every 1m from the seabed to near-surface with the goal to capture any changes in temperature through time and across depth.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Torres-Garcia had a choice to make—stay at the University of Puerto Rico and study marine science or leave her home far behind to study astrophysics at the University of South Carolina, where she had a fellowship offer. She chose astrophysics.

With five suitcases in hand and broken English, Torres-Garcia set out for the United States to study celestial bodies. She earned her degree shortly thereafter but wasn’t completely happy working on theoretical physics. She found herself drawn to applied physics, to work that was more hands-on and actionable.

She decided to pursue a second Master’s focused on oceanography at the University of South Carolina geology department. As part of her thesis studying currents and saltwater intrusion into a freshwater system, she programmed oceanographic time series instruments and dove to the bottom of a river to deploy them.

Once she earned her degree, she set out to find a job that would let her apply her knowledge and passion for science and the ocean. This led her to a position as a scientist at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center.

“I got to do hands-on oceanographic research, including leading, organizing, planning and participating in field expeditions. I had a great mentor at the center, Dr. Dalyander, who recommended I pursue my PhD. After two years working for the USGS, the agency sponsored my PhD at the University of Florida.”

Although Torres-Garcia’s accomplishments would suggest otherwise, working on her PhD wasn’t easy. At this point, Torres-Garcia was a new mother juggling classes and family obligations. She credits having found a support person to help with childcare and an understanding mentor, Maitane Olabarrieta, for being able to make it all work.

To self-motivate, Torres-Garcia would picture herself in four years doing what she wanted to be doing. She’d remind herself if she didn’t ‘go for it’ then she’d still be right where she was currently.

A woman wearing a blue graduation cap and gown jumps into the air on a beach
Legna Torres-Garcia celebrates successfully defending her PhD dissertation in September 2020 earning a doctorate in Oceanographic and Coastal Engineering.

Not even a global pandemic could hold Torres-Garcia back. She successfully defended her PhD dissertation over Zoom with her children tucked away offscreen in September 2020 earning a doctorate in Oceanographic and Coastal Engineering. She’s been a USGS scientist ever since, first as a post-doctoral researcher and now as a research oceanographer.

To say she loves her job would be an understatement.

“I love that every day is not the same as the previous one. There is not a dull moment. I get to do project planning. I get to go diving in cool places. I get to do computer modeling. It's always something different.”

There is no better example of Torres-Garcia’s dedication to her work than the fact that she gets severely seasick, which, of course, she doesn’t let hold her back either.

Perhaps it’s her thirst for hands-on discovery that drives her.

“Being able to see the whole picture in science is fulfilling. What I mean by that is to be able to go in the field and put the instruments in the water and see what is happening in nature. Then to go into the computer and do numerical simulations, which are more regional, not just one point or location in space. You get to see the full picture, like a baby from birth to adulthood.”

Torres-Garcia was first drawn to the USGS to conduct the type of science she was passionate about—studying ocean circulation, waves and sediment transport along complex coastlines and how these impact coastal hazards—in places she loves—Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys. But Torres-Garcia’s passion for science has metamorphosed while working for the USGS.

“Something that I've been learning here that I want to carry forever no matter where I go is the co-production of science. The science we are developing through stakeholder engagement to address the needs of communities is shaping who I am developing into as a scientist. Working at this center allows me to create science that is accessible. If the science I produce is not actionable, accessible or usable, then I'm not doing my job as a scientist.”

And Torres-Garcia is as enthusiastic about the process to co-produce science as she is about the scientific process itself.

“The way we started this process was trying to find a baseline of what knowledge the different stakeholders in Puerto Rico had of USGS resources. What they used in the past, what priorities or needs they had in terms of coastal hazards that the USGS could deliver science to address. We approached them with the mentality to learn, to listen rather than to tell them what we thought they needed. This was possible because we had a team that included local experts, including a local team of social scientists. It was crucial that we started this with wanting to better understand how we can help make science information more useful and accessible.”

A woman stands in front of a group of people holding up a piece of paper with scientific information
Dr. Legna Torres-García is leading an effort to build relationships with stakeholders on the island of Puerto Rico to better understand their needs for natural hazards data and resources and share information available from USGS that are relevant to the island. Here, Legna discusses USGS coastal hazards research with the Professional Fishermen's Association. 

Being able to help communities in Puerto Rico is especially important to Torres-Garcia.

“Growing up in Puerto Rico, I always pictured my future on the island, and now that I don't live there, in a way, it makes me feel connected to the island. Even though I'm away, I have a job where I am able to continue to do science on the island, to progress and to come up with new answers that eventually will help the community.”

Sharing her story during National Hispanic Heritage Month was important to Torres-Garcia, too.

“I hope I can inspire young women that want to go into science.”

When asked what she’d say to would-be future scientists, her advice was, “You might think you need to work harder than anybody else to achieve your dreams, but don’t get discouraged. Your background, no matter what it is, it shapes who you are as a person, and as a scientist. And I truly believe that looking at science through different lenses brings a different set of perspectives that improves the science we do. Go for it! I left my country with five suitcases in hand with broken English and here I am today. When you look back, you're going to realize how much you have grown, and all the goals you’ve achieved.”

Torres-Garcia’s tenacity and passion for science certainly motivated her to persevere through any hardship she faced. She’s immensely grateful for the mentors and support she’s had along the way and recommends budding scientists look for mentors and support people of their own.

“Whatever you choose in your career, if you are passionate about it, you will always give it that extra energy that is needed to be successful. Finding the right mentor who will have your best interests at heart and finding something that you're really passionate about will help you achieve your goals.”


Learn more about Legna Torres-Garcia's work:

Co-production of Science in Puerto Rico

Co-production of Science in Puerto Rico

Natural Hazards in Puerto Rico

Natural Hazards in Puerto Rico

Shoreline Changes in Puerto Rico

Shoreline Changes in Puerto Rico

Real-time Data from Puerto Rico

Real-time Data from Puerto Rico

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.