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Doctoral student makes FSU history becoming first black female graduate in nuclear physics

Posted at 2:45 PM, Aug 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-02 14:45:19-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Kalisa Villafana will become Florida State University's first black female graduate to earn a doctoral degree in nuclear physics.

Villafana will make history when she is hooded on Friday during the first of two summer commencement ceremonies at FSU.

Villafana received her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University before returning to Trinidad and Tobago to work. After a year, she decided an advanced degree would provide greater career opportunities and decided to come back to Tallahassee, this time at FSU.

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“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,” Villafana said. “That was what I got from FSU. None of the other schools I visited gave me that energy.”

During her FSU career, Villafana also served as a mentor to minority students with the goal of encouraging them to pursue graduate studies. Eventually, she hopes to continue to pay it forward by helping young people in her home country attend the school of their dreams.

“I want to show them how to get to the next point,” Villafana 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.”

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After graduation, Villafana plans to work as a process engineer with the Intel Corporation in Arizona, but ultimately, she aspires to work as a medical physicist specializing in cancer research.

For now, Villafana looks forward to gracing FSU’s graduation stage along with two other women, Rebeka Lubna and Maria Anastasiou, who are graduating with their doctorates in nuclear physics — another historic milestone for the university.

“Hopefully, other young girls are motivated when they see us, even though the field is predominantly white and male,” Villafana said. “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.”

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Villafana will also become the 96th black woman in the country with a Ph.D. in physics.