Kalisa Villafana, originally from Trinidad & Tobago, currently works as a process engineer at Intel Corporation in Chandler, Arizona. A month ago, she made history to become Florida State University’s first African-American woman recipient of a doctoral degree in nuclear physics.
Villafana put on her graduation regalia on Friday Aug. 9, 2019, to attend the first of two summer commencement ceremonies at FSU. Along with other Florida State University grads, she walked across the aisle to receive her PhD in nuclear physics.
Even though two other women, Rebeka Lubna and Maria Anastasiou, are graduating with a doctoral degree in nuclear physics as well, she’s the first African-American female graduate to have attained such an achievement at the university.
Beyond a doubt, it’s a proud moment for Villafana. “It’s overwhelming and a pretty big deal,” she said in an interview with Tallahassee Democrat before the ceremony.
“Hopefully, other young girls are motivated when they see us, even though the field is predominantly white and male,” she continued. “Hopefully, they see that they too can be a physicist. You may not see a lot of us, but we’re there. We’re out there.”
And Villafana is the 96th African-American woman in the country to be awarded a PhD in physics.
She told Trinidad and Tobago Guardian via a Skype interview: “There aren’t a lot of women physicists—there aren’t a lot of African-American physicists…In the US, there aren’t yet 100 African-American women with PhD’s in Physics and I believe now I’m either number 95 or 96.”
Talking to WTXL, Villafana shared she wouldn’t have reached this major milestone without the support and help of her family, friends, and FSU along the journey. “The support system is the reason why I was able to finish,” said Villafana, a Seminole who loves math and science.
Villafana attended Holy Faith Convent in Trinidad and Tobago. “It was a strict Catholic girls’ school,” she said. Fascinated by science experiments, Villafana knew she wanted to be a physicist at the age of 12.
“We had a lot of courses, and we were exposed to tons of physics experiments. The teacher would explain that this is how we understand how the universe works. I thought it was interesting. From then on, I said I want to be physicist. That never changed,” she said.
Villafana got the opportunity to attend Florida A&M University in the United States, where she earned her undergraduate degree. After working in Trinidad and Tobago for a year, she returned to Tallahassee to pursue an advanced degree with FSU for greater career opportunities.
Mark Riley, FSU Graduate School Dean, said of Villafana: “She’s brilliant, she’s a lot of fun. She’s got a great sense of humor. You have to have a great sense of humor in science. Not everything works.” He added: “You have to pick yourself up, you’ve got to carry on, you’ve got to dig through the data.”
Also one of Kalisa’s professors, Riley has been with Villafana as she worked toward her goal. The journey hasn’t been easy though. Faced with plenty of challenges, Villafana had wanted to quit.
However, a world-renowned physicist, Riley made sure she did not, and “the Florida State University physicist department really made sure that I did not and I feel like that’s the reason why I’m here at this point,” Villafana said.
Other than becoming the first African-American woman to get a PhD in nuclear physics at FSU, she has a few other accomplishments to boost her resume—her research has been presented in top science journals.
In addition, while Villafana was at FSU, she served as a mentor to minority students to encourage them to pursue graduate studies. “I hope that it would encourage other young men and other young minorities and in general pursue their passions even if the people or the majority of people in the field don’t look like you,” she said.
Villafana also hopes to contribute to her home country by helping young Trinidadians get to the school of their dreams.
“I want to show them how to get to the next point,” she said. “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.”
Now working with Intel Corporation, Villafana has mapped out her career ambitions.
“Beyond the Ph.D., I plan to pursue a career in medical physics, using my training in nuclear physics, radiation and accelerator science to help in the fight against cancer,” she said, according to the FSU website.
This Article Originally Published at theepochtimes