When Kalisa Villafana found out she was about to create history by becoming the first black woman to graduate with a PhD in nuclear physics at Florida State University—just three months before completing her degree—her focus was to compel others to pursue their dreams even if there is no-one in the field who looks like you—another young, black person. The T&T born graduate is also ranked the 96th black woman in the US with a PhD in Physics.
“Everybody wants to interview me…I was like ‘Oh gosh, what is happening?’ And then after a while I was like ‘Stop’…. But then I understood…You know when I read some of the messages that people were saying they wanted to do physics but they were afraid of it, then I was like okay. If it makes an impact on one person then that’s a good thing,” Villafana told Catholic News via phone.
“A particular thing in a really detailed level and your hope is that in five or 10 years, they are going to use the stuff you figured out and apply it to society.”
Of why nuclear physics? Villafana joked she’s not a “reading person” and prefers Math and calculation.
“So I knew from back then, it had to be something with a calculator and numbers.”
Born and raised in St Thomas Village Chaguanas, Villafana was a past student at Chaguanas Government Primary and Holy Faith Convent Couva. She recalled throughout her early school years, she always liked Mathematics. In fact, she said her best teachers at secondary school were her Math teacher Ms Robinson and her Physics teacher, Ms Kamla Matthews. Villafana shared she would get “excited” to do physics experiments, which she felt were “very fun”.
“I didn’t realise how much I liked physics until after Form 5 when I thought about the things I liked the most—Maths and Physics. I would help my friends do their homework and I always thought it was interesting because she would teach us in a way where you would see things around you and you don’t think of it as physics,” she explained.
She spent one year at The University of the West Indies (UWI) where she pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and Physics. In 2008, she received a scholarship to study at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). There, she pursued another Bachelor’s Degree in Physics, attained research experience and met a lot of “Trini’s” there. After completing the degree in 2011, Villafana wanted to do more physics to get “an advanced degree”.
She told Catholic News via WhatsApp call, that in the beginning, she had a hard time being away from family.
“Because I miss home all the time, the culture is different, the food is different, the music is different. So it was an adjustment. And Tallahassee (Florida) is a very small college town, so you’re not going to see a lot of Caribbean people there. So that was a challenge,” she said.
However, Villafana shared she met other “Trini” students there and one of her roommates was also a past Holy Name Convent student.
“We didn’t know each other in school but we connected here and ended up being friends. So I started to be good once I met people and realised there’s a lot of Trinidadians and Caribbean people who are at the same journey: their family isn’t here….”
Of her Bachelor’s Degree, Villafana said she received a bit of experience working with a professor to see firsthand what a scientist/engineer/physicist does. She described the experience as “interesting”.
She returned home to Trinidad for one year in 2011 with the hope of teaching before she resumed studies in Florida. She held an OJT job performing lab work at Presentation College, Chaguanas. But, she said, wanted to do “more than that.”
A year later, Villafana attained a full scholarship to pursue her PhD at Florida State University (FSU) which she said, took a lot of years, was stressful at times, but was a rewarding experience. Why FSU? She told Catholic News, that the university is one of two major universities in Tallahassee, Florida with a “very good” physics programme and environment.
Of her 6 years of studies, Villafana shared that any PhD programme is “very intense” and requires you working a lot on your own.
She recalled, “You start off very stressed. Graduate school versus undergraduate school is very different. You have to adjust and then you kind of get into the groove of it. So I think there were a lot of high and low points throughout it. And I think I wanted to quit. I seriously considered leaving half way through.”
She expressed gratitude to her mother Koreen Villafana and her younger sister Adeisha Roberts for encouraging and not forcing her. She also credited other family members: her dad and aunt, friends who were at that time pursuing PhD’s and notably, her adviser Dr Mark Riley.
Villafana, a former parishioner of St Philip and St James Church, Chaguanas, pointed out she has always placed God at the center of everything. She mentioned she has found different church families while in the US and her mother has always encouraged her to pray and trust in God’s plan for her life.
Today, Villafana, is based in West Arizona and has been employed with Intel, an American international semiconductor manufacturing company since September, one month after graduating.
Her advice for young persons is to get exposed to different things, don’t limit yourself and don’t be scared because you have never done it before. “STEM is not for everybody but what’s the harm in learning about something new,” she said.
By Kaelanne Jordan