This past weekend, Kalisa Villafana made history as Florida State University’s first African-American woman to graduate with a doctorate degree in nuclear physics. Villafana, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, received her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University and came back to the states to pursue her childhood dream. Villafana said she has wanted to be a physicist since she was 12 years old, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.
She attended an all-girls Catholic school growing up where she was “exposed to tons of physics experiments.” Her teachers at Holy Faith Convent in Trinidad used the physics experiments to help students understand the principles of matter and energy and how the universe works. “From then on, I said I want to be a physicist [and] that never changed,” said Villafana.
Being an international student, Villafana wanted to make sure she entered into a Ph.D. program where she had support and community. She found that at FSU with a world-renowned physicist, Mark Riley, who she credits with expanding her access and opportunities. Riley introduced her to a network of mentors and resources. He also helped her to attend academic conferences and conduct research across the country during her time at FSU.
Villafana served as a mentor to other minority students at the University, encouraging them to pursue graduate studies. “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.
I want to show them how to get to the next point,” Villafana said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat. The world of physics is mostly white and male, something Villafana acknowledges. But she hopes that her presence will motivate other young African-American women to follow in her footsteps. “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 told Because of Them We Can.
I tell them, “don’t be intimidated and that they bring new and invaluable perspectives.” Dr. Villafana’s goal is to specialize in cancer research, working as a medical physicist. She now becomes the 96th African-American woman in the country with a Ph.D. in physics, adding a new face to what physicists look like. “You may not see a lot of us but we’re there. We’re out there.” Congratulations Dr. Kalisa Villafana! We are all so very proud of you!