What's My Story: Ph.D. Research Assistant in Chemistry

Tana Villafana

It took Tana Villafana some time to figure out that she wanted to be a chemist. She started out hoping to be a writer and a musician. But as things worked out, she got to combine her love of the humanities with her love of electromagnetism.

Ph.D. Research Assistant: employed by a university to conduct research while seeking to earn a doctorate degree. They are typically responsible to a principal investigator.

When did you discover you wanted to be a chemist?

It took me awhile. I started college at UNC Charlotte, wanting to be a creative writer. I liked playing music, going to poetry slams, and I certainly didn’t like science. But I had to take a hard science course to graduate. I wasn’t interested in biology and I was scared of physics so that left chemistry. I was really surprised to find out that I was good at it; that I understood chemistry. When we started talking about electromagnetic waves, electrons, photons, and matter, I was completely hooked.

We started out talking mostly about photons as packets of wave energy and electrons as tiny bits of matter but then we studied quantum level where there is a blur between particles and waves. I was really intrigued by the double slit experiment. That experiment still blows my mind even today, when I’m close to a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. I was fascinated by light, the different colors and how we perceive them, chemical spectra, and why things look blue or red. I made a comic strip about electromagnetism, that’s how much of a nerd I was.

What did you study in college?

Well, things began to get rocky after I found chemistry. I had these two very different interests. Chemistry and creative writing didn’t overlap very well. I was confused and school was expensive. So I dropped out after 3 years and moved to Chicago. I worked for the Red Cross as a disaster action team member; a part of a program called AmeriCorps. Natural disasters in Chicago are mainly domestic fires, but I actually worked during the period when Hurricane Katrina hit and we had a lot of response to that, even in Chicago. Mostly, we worked to make sure people had food, shelter, and clothing during the first 48 hours after a disaster. I liked the culture in Chicago—the poetry, art and music. I played music around the city, but I didn’t feel intellectually challenged.  My interest in chemistry kept bubbling. I watched everything Brian Greene did on NOVA and read a lot of books about science. I missed chemistry. When my AmeriCorps service term ended, I was given an allotment of money I could use for education, so I decided to go back to school at the University of Illinois in Chicago and I had much more focused idea of my course of study. I could write on my own, but I couldn’t practice quantum mechanics on my own. I needed a degree to do that.

A work-study grant was a part of my financial aid package, so I was able to get a job as a student worker in the chemistry department. I got to know all of the teachers, and ended up doing undergraduate research. I joined the ultrafast laser spectroscopy lab with Dr. Robert Gordon. It was an amazing experience that really enriched my undergraduate experience. I also liked to joke that you can solve any problem by shooting it with a laser. I was pretty set on the idea of a Ph.D. at that time and holding true to my philosophy, I looked into chemistry programs that had ultrafast laser research. Warren Warren’s lab at Duke was particularly intriguing because he took ultrafast lasers beyond spectroscopy and into the real world with imaging applications. I applied and was pretty over the moon when I got my acceptance letter. I think I did the cabbage patch dance for long periods of time over the next few weeks.

Puccio Cappana's The CrucifixionWhere do you hope your career takes you?

Well, first I want to graduate! I’ve had such an amazing opportunity here at Duke to combine my love of art with science. I’ve been working very closely with the conservators at the North Carolina Museum of Art and with conservation scientists at the National Gallery of Art on my project and it has really opened my eyes to what science can be and what we can accomplish when we put aside our preconceived notions of what it means to do research science. I want to use science to understand the culture of the time that historical art was made. I want to unlock the mysteries of forgotten cultures. Take the painting by Puccio Cappana called The Crucifixion: The color blue in the Madonna’s robe comes from crystals of lapis lazuli in the painting. That means that the people in Italy were trading with people in Afghanistan—the only place where lapis was mined in Eurasia at the time. That’s a 4000-mile journey in 1400! That tells us a lot about this time period and the wealth of the people involved in the commissioning of the painting.

What do you like about the work you do everyday?
I like problem solving. We have this cool new technology that we can use to investigate cultural heritage in many different ways and answer a lot of different types of questions. Currently, I’m working with the art museum conservators to study this small group of early Italian paintings. I’m focused on finding the discrete wavelengths that will detect each of the 18 pigments from the early Italian palette. We are hoping this work will reveal more about the cultural history of these beautiful paintings.

- By Lucy Laffitte

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