The First Black Woman to Earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics at Florida State University

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.”


Comments (22)

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  1. Ewart Archer says:

    Aren’t there easier paths to becoming a process engineer at Intel Corp.?

  2. Dr. Patricia Cedeno-Zamor says:

    Congratulations on your achievement Dr.Villafana.

  3. James Owusu says:

    Dr Villafana, I wish to congratulate you on your sterling academic achievement. It is always a tremendous achievement to be a trailblazer in any field but nuclear physics makes it extra special. I note your cancer research aspiration and would encourage you to pursue a career in academia because a process engineer role with Intel is not the correct career pathway to becoming a research scientist. Furthermore, I believe that those with undergraduate engineering degrees will edge you in the recruitment and selection process!

  4. David Mensah says:

    This is a great achievement for our lovely sister. At the same time, it is a challenge for other blacks to work hard to attain the greatest height. Hard work can make blacks to be great again.

  5. James Zemran says:

    Congratulations. Maybe people will stop feeling that the colour of a person’s skin is relevant when sites like this stop making it a thing. I am sure that her acievemnt was thanks to her work.

    • A DeRan says:

      I agree with your sentiment, but perhaps you missed that this notice is published in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. For this venue, her skin color is a bit of a salient point.

  6. john gonsalves says:

    Having a steep history and relationship to the W.I and Trinidad and Tobago, the Gonsalves family of T & T, including the Gonsalves family and citizens of St Vincent and the Grenadines and the PM Dr. Ralph Gonsalves.


  7. Rick.Whaley says:

    Dr. Villafana, without question, you are an imsperation to all young people of the world, especially to those who love science and aspire to excell, be it nuclear physics, astro physics or even cosmology. A sincere congratulations to you. Have a wonderful life, do well. You are a trail blazer!

  8. Raoul Berret Jr says:

    Hello Dr. Villafana… Congratulations on your perseverance and achievement. I was particularly touched by your hope to actively inspire others in pursuing a similar path, from Trinidad & Tobago and/or beyond.

    Wishing you continued success,

    Raoul Berret Jr
    BS, MS Mech. Engineering
    Class of 2003 & 2005

  9. Dr. Lennox E. Superville says:

    Born in Trinidad & Tobago and the first Black male to receive a PhD in Mathematics from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 1978, I congratulate Dr. Villafana for another groundbreaking venture.

  10. P v Solanki says:

    Congratulations.Why Black has been mentioned, human being is enough, when will you improve? Should , the God , almighty,give you the next birth, in the blacks ,so that you can understand, the meaning of humanity?

  11. Maria Dorvil says:

    I would like to congratulate you on this great success as a black woman and you greatly inspired me as a single parent continuing education to pursue my dreams and I greatly appreciate you in this time in my life.

  12. MForchion says:

    Congratulations on your achievements Dr. Villifana! As a fellow graduate of FSU I’m happy to hear of such an outstanding accomplishment. I’m sure that your contributions and unique perspectives to the field of nuclear physics will be of great value. Best wishes to you!

  13. Rebecca says:

    Congratulations Dr.Villafana on your milestone!

  14. Genet Casimir says:

    Wish you the best, sis.
    G Casimir, a Trini by marriage

  15. john preston says:


  16. Edward says:

    Congratulations madam!

  17. Amallia Lee says:

    The Corporate GIg is just a way for her to build her “Business World Cred” [and pay off her tuition] so she can achieve her dream of becoming a Medical Physicist specializing in Cancer Research!!

  18. Grem Noal says:

    Congratulations to you Dr Villafana from Vanuuatu.
    You inspired us through your great achievement.
    You set great examples, we’ll do likewise.

    God bless you

  19. Richard McDonald says:

    Congratulations Dr. Villafana on achieving this significant milestone. Continue to pursue your dreams with confidence. You have represented your country T & T well.
    Wishing you continued success!

  20. Eisa says:

    I would like to congratulate Dr. Villafana, my childhood friend on all your accomplishments you have made your mum and dad so proud and your family by extension.

    Imagine God had such a big plan for your life, you put Trinidad on the map in a grande way.
    I am not surprised, you always had big dreams and you are very smart I was older than you were but we were close friends when we were young because you were so mature. Congratulation again my friend I am proud of you.

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