The awards are piling up for UCF McKnight Fellow Karla Badillo-Urquiola ’14 ’15MS who in the past two months has been named a McKnight Award winner and an Order of Pegasus Award recipient.

Badillo-Urquiola, a doctoral candidate in modeling and simulation, is committed to academic excellence, diversifying the STEM field and making an impact in her community.

Badillo-Urquiola’s research focuses on investigating the challenges teens in the foster care system face online and ways to empower them to have more control of their online safety.

“Teens in the foster care system are some of the most vulnerable to the most serious online sexual risks, such as sex trafficking,” says Badillo-Urquiola, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in modeling and simulation.  “My goal is to understand the ‘why’ and ‘how,’ and find tangible solutions to help them engage safely online.”

“Teens in the foster care system are some of the most vulnerable to the most serious online sexual risks, such as sex trafficking.”  — Karla Badillo-Urquiola, UCF doctoral student

Seeking to understand teens within the foster community does not end in the lab. Through her volunteer work with the Foundation for Foster Children, she connects with teens and ensures her work is grounded in their reality.

“I want to have a direct impact on the people I interact with daily,” says Badillo-Urquiola, who also serves as an ambassador for an anti-sex trafficking nonprofit organization. To her it is invaluable to first understand her “users” before interpreting her data.

The Russell V. Ewald Academic Excellence and Order of Pegasus Awards are presented to students who sufficiently demonstrate their commitment to academic excellence and to community service; Badillo-Urquiola uniquely takes this initiative to heart by improving her research through her community service, and she hopes in the end helping the community.

As a Latina, she takes pride in being a role model for minority women and breaking stereotypes through her academic work and community activism. Badillo-Urquiola says she is no stranger to the assumptions that can often arise because of gender, ethnicity and her identity as a mother. She is expecting her second child while balancing the pursuit of a doctorate degree.

There tends to be an unspoken rule that you must choose between the roles of mother and student, and the current climate of STEM does little to dispel this mentality, she says.

“In academia we have this sense of culture where you have to be ‘more professional’ and family doesn’t seem to fit into that mentality,” says Badillo-Urquiola.

But Badillo-Urquiola is an example that being an excellent professional and having a family is achievable. After earning her degree, she plans on becoming a tenured professor.

She says that when she succeeds, she will join the 1 percent of Latinas nationwide that are tenured faculty at universities.

She will be presenting her research during Student Research Week March 30-April 3.