Meet Dr. María de Lourdes Lugo Torres, Weed Scientist and Professor
A loyal and fearless fighter that has battled against stereotypes and injustice
Dr. María de Lourdes Lugo Torres is a weed scientist and professor who has served the College of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez Campus (UPRM) for over 30 years. She’s taught the Weed Science lecture and laboratory course, guided undergraduate student summer practice, research, seminar, and participated in master’s graduate committees. She’s in charge of the organic farms in the Lajas and Gurabo’s Agricultural Experimental Station (AES), where she leads extension programs for farmers about the transition from conventional to organic production.
A subconscious passion
Her academic career started at home. Her father was an agronomist and her mother worked in the Agricultural Extension Service in Puerto Rico. Initially, she didn’t contemplate agriculture as a career but later realized the strength of her parents’ influence. She became admitted to the UPRM, majoring in Agronomy but the lack of empathy from her professors was key in finding her true passion.
“Most of my professors came off as superior to their students and I didn’t feel comfortable speaking with them. This made me change from Agronomy to Horticulture as a major; professors were nicer in this department.” During her summer practice as an undergraduate, she met weed scientist, Dr. Ribero in the Juana Díaz AES. His research was on weeds and herbicide use. His enthusiasm inspired her to continue into graduate school and so, she applied for an M.Sc. in Crop Protection at UPRM, the institution where she got her B.Sc.
After her M.Sc., her first job was with Dr. Nelia Acosta, a respected nematologist in the Agro-environmental Department at UPRM. Even though María disliked soil science and nematology, she worked hard and learned as much as she could from Nelia. Another scientist that inspired María was Dr. Rocío Rodríguez, a plant pathologist, who like Dr. Acosta, was a strong and respected woman in the department. María aspired to be like them.
The drive through graduate school
She was offered a job in National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) but refused it because it wasn’t in weed science and she felt that a university position would give her more freedom in research areas. She had to decide whether to stay in her system or move to a federal agency, and she chose to stay loyal to her university. María transferred from the UPRM AES to the Río Piedras AES, where her partner was relocated. Shortly after, they got married and moved to Arkansas to pursue her doctoral degree.
"After my M.Sc. I didn’t feel comfortable with the knowledge I had at the moment. I wanted to learn more which is why I didn’t doubt going for the Ph.D."
To her surprise, 3 out of 35 graduate students in the Weed Science program at the University of Arkansas, were females and María was one of them. The courses, the language, adapting to the married life, and the demographics played against her. For three years, she went to the library every day from Monday to Thursday and studied hard. At one point, she felt like quitting and returning home, but her husband said to her, ‘you can’t leave, we’re in this together.’
"You develop character. Back then and now, it’s a men’s field. I had to fight against the prejudice of the language barrier, being Puerto Rican and being a woman."
María realized the importance of support groups. Without her husband, friends, and family, she probably wouldn’t have made it. After all the persistence, she obtained her Ph.D. in Weed Science.
"To go through graduate school, you don’t have to be brilliant, just resilient, and persevering. ‘Meterle ganas’ as the Puerto Ricans would say. Intelligence helps, but what you need is the drive to push forward."
When doing research, Dr. Lugo encourages scientists to keep in mind that the reason behind it is to help farmers improve production with better techniques, strategies, and practices. And so, María de Lourdes became the first and only woman weed scientist of Puerto Rico.
First researcher, then professor
Her expertise is in weed management of root crops, bananas, plantains, and pastures. In the 80s, integrated pest management became very popular, and so the biology and ecology of weeds gained importance.
Dr. Lugo devoted many years of her career to the registration of herbicides under the IR-4 Project, a task that manufacturing companies did not do. The herbicides registered for root crops in Puerto Rico are the result of Dr. Lugo’s research in this program.
In the last 12 years, she has dedicated to a different venue, organic agriculture, extension, and education. "One of the greatest satisfactions as a professional has been giving class, seeing my students graduate, and knowing that I somehow influenced them into becoming good professionals and good human beings. Seeing them succeed is the best."
Besides researcher and professor, Dr. Lugo is an associate of the Journal of Agriculture of the University of Puerto Rico. She has worked with the Department of Agriculture of Puerto Rico inspecting the imported vegetative material and giving permits to companies to use products registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Support, above all things
Dr. Lugo has confronted faculty and directors in defense of young women. She does not fear to go against the system when she recognizes that its flaws become obstacles for students. "Before being a professor, I lived in a bubble. I wasn’t aware of the situations and necessities that young women students face during their undergrad, such as accidental pregnancies, raising children, dropping out and coming back, domestic violence, losing their homes, unemployment, and struggling to pay rent. They’ve made me more sensible and I decided that I needed to help them graduate no matter what."
"As the state University of Puerto Rico, it’s our responsibility to help students succeed so that they can have a better quality of life, better job opportunities, and not make them feel that the system has failed them."
Because of this, she has become an ally for her students, someone in which they can rely on for support and advice. She follows up on them after they graduate by writing to them and helping them stay on track. In a world full of distractions, she says that intelligence isn’t enough.
“You need to have character and discipline above all. Consistency, perseverance, and hard work overcome any intelligence.”
A fearless fighter and helper
At the beginning of her research career, when she established field trials, the AES’s workers had a hard time following orders from a woman.
"In my first year as a researcher, I was the one who applied the herbicides, and some of my colleagues opposed this because I was a woman. With time, I developed credibility by working beside them every day until one day I won the workers and they finally respected me. That is still a challenge."
Most weed science work is done out in the field. Lugo had to go against the stereotypes that a woman couldn’t calibrate a sprayer and against the entire ‘women can’t do agriculture’ common thinking. It’s been a challenge, but she’s never given up on herself nor on others. María knows that at one point or another, we all need help and she’s the type of person who is always there to lend a hand.
"I help whoever needs help, but I know how hard it is for women in agriculture. I help male students too, but they don’t face as much prejudice as women do in this field."
A pandemic lifestyle
In the academy, the lockdown has made online communication the new norm. In her case, she had a hard time transitioning and adapting her classes online.
"In the beginning, our supervisors were very hard on us. We were forced to take 2-3 seminars every day. I felt very stressed because I didn’t dominate technology. I had no idea how to do it, but my son helped me out. I would practice giving the classes with him. I’m no expert now but, I’ve gotten better thanks to him." She’s been able to push forward by creating a strict home routine. She says that consistency is key.
Maria has done more cooking and baking, which are some of her hobbies, besides cycling, collecting coins, and doing community service.
Reflections close to the finish line
"It’s been 32 years of service. I’m close to finishing my career and even though I can retire, I will wait 2 more years but I will not return to the classroom. I need to slowly disconnect myself because emotionally it’s been very strong."
The passing of students through her classroom has made her reflect on modern-day education and in the challenges students face nowadays, challenges that she didn’t have back in her day. She thinks that now it’s harder to focus in college because there are many distractions that her generation didn’t have.
Dr. Lugo is a bold human being, who has never feared to express her thoughts and to defend her point of view. She’s encountered many challenges along the way, but none have brought her down. They have helped her grow and stand taller. One of her greatest lessons and advice is to give back what has been given.
"I believe that you must give back to the university what the university gave to you. If the university helped us, we must help the university. The best decision I made was being a professor."
Thank you for sharing your journey with us Dr. Lugo!
We wish you the best now and always.
Dr. Lugo can be contacted at:
LinkedIn: Maria Lugo-Torres
This interview was conducted and written by WAGS team member, Patricia Marie Cordero Irizarry.