Kalisa Villafana has made history as the first Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Florida State University. Additionally, she is only the 96th Black woman in the country with a Ph.D. in physics.
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Villafana decided at the age of 12 that she would be a physicist after conducting science experiments at her school, Holy Faith Convent. She went on to earn her undergraduate degree from historically Black Florida A&M University and returned to Trinidad and Tobago to enter the workforce upon her graduation. After a year of working, she decided to pursue an advanced degree and chose to attend Florida State University.
At FSU, Dr. Villafana studied under her advisor, Mark Riley, former chair of the physics department and current dean of the Graduate School. Dr. Riley helped Dr. Villafana expand her professional network of mentors, attend an academic conference in Hawaii, and conduct research at Argonne National Lab Chicago.
Dr. Villafana also served as a mentor to other minority students with the goal of encouraging them to pursue graduate studies. Eventually, she hopes to help young people from her home country attend the school of their dreams. She plans to work as a process engineer with Intel Corporation in Arizona. Ultimately, she aspires to work as a medical physicist specializing in cancer research.
“It’s overwhelming and a pretty big deal,” said Dr. Villafana of her historic milestone. “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.”