Kalisa Villafana made history last August as the first black female graduate at Florida State University (FSU) to earn a doctoral degree in nuclear physics.
Villafana is thus, only the 96th black woman in the United States with a Ph.D. in physics.
“It’s overwhelming and a pretty big deal,” she said of her history shattering achievement.
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“It feels great to be the first at Florida State, and I hope that more young women are encouraged to pursue physics degrees. Diversity and inclusion are necessary. Everyone can contribute different perspectives to various fields.”
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Villafana, had her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University.
Villafana’s quest to becoming a physicist started when she was 12. She was exposed to “tons of physics experiments” when she was growing up as a student of an all-girl Catholic school.
Villafana took several courses during her time at Holy Faith Convent in her home country, where she and other girls were exposed to loads of physics experiments.
“I thought it was interesting. From then on, I said I want to be a physicist. That never changed,” she said.
She would then return to Trinidad and Tobago to work and return to the United States after a year to ensure her childhood dream came to fruition.
“When it comes to a Ph.D. program you have to feel like you’re going to thrive and the people there want you to succeed,” Florida State University News quoted Villafana as saying. “That was what I got from FSU. None of the other schools I visited gave me that energy.”
After choosing Mark Riley, a world-renowned physicist, to be her adviser, the rest was history for Villafana. Riley chaired the physics department when Villafana first arrived at FSU.
“Kalisa is absolutely fabulous,” Riley, who’s now dean of the FSU Graduate School said. “She is brilliant, persistent and has a super sense of humor. It has been a joy to work with her and the research results she has produced are outstanding. She has an amazing future ahead of her.”
Aware of the fact that the world of physics is mostly white and male, Villafana hopes her achievement would serve as an inspiration to young black girls.
“I always encourage young women to pursue what they are passionate about and what makes them excited, even if they are a minority in the field,” she said.
“Hopefully, other young girls are motivated when they see us, even though the field is predominantly white and male,” Villafana added.
Villafana, who wants to specialize in cancer research, working as a medical physicist further noted that she wanted to “show them how to get to the next point.”
“In Trinidad, many people don’t know how to get to the United States and get a Ph.D. that’s paid for by the school. They don’t know how to go from being an international student from the islands to a doctor in the U.S.”
Villafana currently works as a process engineer with the Intel Corporation in Arizona. Her achievement inspired her mother and sister to go to college.
“My mom went back to school and got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and my young sister started her bachelor’s program as well,” Villafana said. “When you do certain things, especially coming from a small place in Trinidad, people are encouraged.”