Kalisa Villafana became the first black female graduate to earn a doctoral degree in nuclear physics at Florida State University.

Villafana made history when she was hooded during the first of two commencement ceremonies at FSU.

Kalisa from Trinidad and Tobago is a lover of math and science. She received her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University and then returned to Trinidad and Tobago to work.

After a year away, she new that she wanted to achieve more and set her sights on an advanced degree that would provide greater career opportunities so she decided to return to Florida, this time at FSU.

Villafana said:

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

Whilst at FSU, Villafana acted as a mentor to ethnic minority students with the sole goal of helping them to pursue graduate studies. She stated that she hopes to continue to pay it forward by helping young people attend school in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago.

She added:

“I want 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 ultimately aspires to work as a medical physicist specializing in cancer research but her current plan is to work as a process engineer for the Intel Corporation in Arizona.

Villafana graduated alongside two other women, Rebeka Lubna and Maria Anastasiou, who graduated 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.”

Villafana became the 96th black woman in the country with a Ph.D. in physics.

“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,” said Kalisa.

Her research has also been featured in top science journals.

Kalisa said:

“I’ve wanted to quit before like you would do in a lot of challenge and experiences but I feel like he made sure that I 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,”