Alina Garcia Taormina lives to make the world a little bit better.
In recent years, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Ph.D. student in materials science has created a scholarship fund for students at her alma mater, Santa Monica High School, who participated in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program; volunteered as a STEM mentor to 11th grade girls in WiSTEM L.A., a program run out of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office; and served as a liaison for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, assisting in the preparation of chemicals and lab equipment used by students in the CTY program.
“I have always felt the need to help others,” said Garcia Taormina, whom friends describe as “all heart” and who currently works in the Hodge Materials Nanotechnology Research Group under Professor Andrea Hodge.
“I believe that we all have something to give, even if it isn’t a lot. Anything that goes towards meeting the needs of someone else is well worth it,” added Garcia Taormina, who between 2016 and 2018 bought 11 laptops for college-bound AVID students whom she tutored.
That selflessness has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) awarded her the 2019 SHPE National Technical Achievement and Recognition Award: Graduate Student Role Model, for Southern California and Arizona. The STAR award, the highest honor given to a graduate student, recognizes Garcia Taormina’s outstanding contribution to SHPE’s USC chapter and the Hispanic community.
Garcia Taormina’s generous spirit has touched many lives over the years. In 2015 and 2016, she served as an AVID volunteer at Santa Monica High. In the eager young faces of the mostly Latino students whom she tutored in math and science, Garcia Taormina saw herself, a once directionless girl who intellectually and academically blossomed under the guidance of caring AVID mentors years before.
As Garcia Taormina saw the impact of her efforts, she became ever more committed to the fledgling scholars, racking up more than 150 AVID tutoring hours before eventually being promoted to paid staff. Along the way, Garcia Taormina heard heartbreaking stories from her mentees, including that some of them lacked the technological tools to thrive academically.
So, Garcia Taormina decided to do something; she created the scholarship fund.
Jasmine Diaz is one of the beneficiaries of Garcia Taormina’s largesse. The 19-year-old Cal State Fullerton sophomore said Garcia Taormina tutored her in math and science at Santa Monica High. Garcia Taormina also gifted Diaz a MacBook Air, saving her more than $1,000.
“That helped me a lot,” said Diaz, who remains in contact with Garcia Taormina and hopes to become a child-life specialist. “In my first year of college, I didn’t have to take a job to pay for a laptop. I could really enjoy college and just focus on it.”
Most recently, Garcia Taormina has offered her time and talents to SHPE, leveraging her organizational and outreach skills to help grow the number of participating graduate students in SHPE’s USC student chapter. Garcia Taormina has assisted in planning game nights, graduate student paint nights, and sponsored other events for prospective graduate student members. The result: the number of active SHPE graduate students has tripled to about 15 from five over the past year and a half.
“Alina has selflessly aided in developing the SHPE graduate student community on top of establishing a scholarship for under-served students in LA,” said Emily Anne, SHPE’s national graduate assembly co-chair and a USC Viterbi Ph.D. student in materials science. “I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to develop a relationship and work with Alina.”
Garcia Taormina said she felt “grateful and proud” about winning the SHPE’s prestigious STAR award. However, she added, “at the same time I don’t feel like I have done all that much.”
An empathetic child
Garcia Taormina’s empathy manifested at a young age, said Monica Taormina, her mother.
Garcia Taormina, always strong in math and science, tutored her peers in junior high and high school. One friend credited her for passing chemistry. She even assisted teachers, often staying after school to help her math and science teachers organize their classrooms.
“Lina’s one of those people who puts others before herself. She’s always there for everyone,” Monica Taormina said.
Philanthropy only partly explains the multifaceted Alina Garcia Taormina. Intelligence is also a big part of the equation.
As a researcher in the lab of Hodge – Arthur B. Freeman Professor in USC Viterbi with a joint appointment in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering – Garica Taormina “dissects problems, understands all the critical parts and knows how they connect,” Hodge said.
Still, Hodge added that Garcia Taormina’s “heart” makes her special. “She wants to help everybody and make everything better. I have to sometimes stop and tell her, ‘Stop. Be selfish.’”
Garcia Taormina, who’s engineering strong, complex 3-D microscale composite materials for use in the aerospace and other industries, is a recipient of the highly competitive National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship, a three-year award that covers tuition, health insurance and incidental expenses. She also spent the last two summers as a visiting researcher at the prestigious Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.
Garcia Taormina said she has found a home at USC Viterbi. In addition to SHPE, she belonged to USC QuEST, or Queers in Engineering, Science, and Technology, where she received mentoring from a Raytheon engineer, an invaluable experience given her interest in the aerospace industry.
“USC Viterbi provides a plethora of resources to help its students succeed, whether professional development, career services, mentorship programs, and diversity and inclusion,” Garcia Taormina said.