Even before Karla Badillo-Urquiola ’14 ’15MS collects her third degree from UCF on May 7, the modeling and simulation doctoral student already has a job lined up. She’ll begin her career as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame in the fall — a status shared by less than 1% of Latinas in the computing workforce. As part of the job, she will also serve as a fellow of Notre Dame’s Lucy Family Institute for Data and Society, where she will continue her current research and collaborate with the community to build better futures for youth.
“My dream has always been to be a driving force in society for change and make a positive difference in someone else’s life,” she says. “UCF has provided me not only the tools to make this dream come true, but also the opportunities to use my tools and skillsets to make these impacts.”
Badillo-Urquiola conducts human-computer interaction research to create solutions that can assist young people in navigating the risks experienced in online communities and to help protect the well-being of youth and marginalized communities. She’s also been active in the community working hard to prevent human trafficking. Her doctoral dissertation, which was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation and the U.S. National Science Foundation, investigated the different levels of social support teens in foster care receive to help them navigate their online experiences and safety. More than 40 people from around the world (virtual and in-person) attended her defense which led her to receive the Graduate Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship, a testament to her meaningful work. She is passionate about her work because it is personal.
The daughter of immigrants from Cuba and Mexico, Badillo-Urquiola’s life wasn’t always easy. Her family made many sacrifices to give her the privilege of an education, she says. Badillo-Urquiola saw family members experience discrimination and during her childhood, she lived through divorces and witnessed domestic violence.
“The stories of my family are reminders to me that no matter what happens in this world, no one can take away your education — the knowledge that you’ve acquired,” she says. “Having a strong community helped me overcome my childhood traumas, therefore studying how we can build online communities and supports for youth is important to me.”
As a mother of two, she says she’s even more determined to protect all young people. She knows her children look to her as a role model.
“Providing a better future for my daughters motivates me to push boundaries and not be afraid to be bold,” she says.
Her work ethic paid off well before graduation day.
During her time at UCF, Badillo-Urquiola, who has also earned a bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in modeling and simulation from the university, has received numerous awards and accolades for her research and involvement. In addition to recently receiving the Graduate Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship, she is also an Order of Pegasus member, McKnight Doctoral fellow, and was also named a McNair Scholar during her undergraduate work.
The modeling and simulation Ph.D .graduate credits her success to the interdisciplinary nature of her program, the support she received at the university, and the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program, all of which afforded her opportunities that shaped her experience. The McNair Program allowed her to broaden her horizons, from advocating for the importance of research funding at Florida’s Capitol, to spending time with children in orphanages in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Through earned scholarships and travel grants, Karla was also able to explore cities like Montreal, Canada and Glasgow, Scotland, while presenting her research at several high-tier international and national scientific conferences and symposiums. These experiences motivated her to step out of her comfort zone and molded her into the outgoing, independent, and confident research scholar that she is today, she says.
Badillo-Urquiola says the people around her who have supported her through her endeavors inspire her. If not for the mentorship and guidance she received from Michael Aldarondo-Jeffries and Natalia Leal Toro in the McNair office, she says she wouldn’t have pursued a Ph.D.
Other than her family, the person Badillo-Urquiola says most influenced her and to which she will be eternally grateful is her academic advisor, Associate Professor of Computer Science Pamela Wisniewski.
“Not only does she help me in my professional development, but she has also helped me navigate stressful life situations, like surviving a pandemic with a newborn child and making the life-altering decision of moving out of state away from my extended family for a tenured track job,” she says. “Dr. Wisniewski pushed me to be more confident in myself and to never fear taking risks.”