Name: Natalie Villafranca
Hometown: Dallas, TX
Notable UD Memories/Achievements: Rome (even though COVID ended it early); starting the Student Leaders for Racial Solidarity and the First Generation Student Association.
Future Plans: Earning her M.S. in biology at Texas State University, and eventually working for a marine conservation nonprofit or government agency.
This is the 10th in a series of 11 stories that will be published to highlight the achievements of some of our seniors in the Class of 2021.
At the University of Dallas, students learn to grapple with the great thinkers of history. Natalie Villafranca, BS ’21, discovered a passion for something else ancient and all too often overlooked: our coral reefs.
Like many local students, Villafranca learned about UD simply by growing up as a Catholic in the Dallas area. When it was time to pick a college, the obvious choice for her was something small, Catholic and nearby. Even though she did not know much about UD coming in, she quickly discovered the value of the liberal arts focus and the Core Curriculum. After her Rome semester, which COVID cut short, she said, “I was really able to appreciate and apply the virtue of liberal arts to my life.”
While Villafranca says the liberal arts education she received at UD “helped me grow in virtue and taught me how to seek that which is good, true and beautiful,” it was in one particular science class that she felt the call to “love and seek truth and justice” in the real world. At the Marine Field Ecology Lab with Assistant Professor of Biology Deanna Soper, Ph.D., in the Florida Keys, she first saw coral disease and restoration firsthand. Her heart broke for this vital and beautiful part of our ecosystem, and she felt that God was calling her to work in marine conservation science.
Villafranca studied coral growth for a year and a half, including a summer, with Soper. She presented her research on coral growth at a national conference in a poster, and submitted her data in a paper for a peer-reviewed publication. Her love of the coral reefs is the basis for her graduate school plans.
Between doing field research and submitting scientific papers to peer-reviewed journals, one would imagine that Villafranca couldn’t have found extra time or energy for extracurriculars, but she played a key role in a number of campus activities. She served as an officer in the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society (TriBeta), as secretary her junior year and as president her senior year. She also founded two clubs: the First-Generation Student Association, of which she served as president, and the Student Leaders for Racial Solidarity, of which she served as advancement officer.
Villafranca originally considered taking pre-med courses, but became frustrated after taking anatomy and felt like it was not the direction for her. She credits Soper with encouraging her to stick with biology when she was feeling frustrated with the medical path, and to try other classes to find her passion. She is also grateful for Associate Professor and Chair of Biology William Cody, Ph.D.: “He was a great support system during my senior year, and is a great role model in pursuing truth and justice.” Assistant Professor of Biology Drew Stenesen, on the other hand, “is the reason I know how to design experiments and think like a scientist. When experiments would fail, he would tell me, ‘Well, that’s how life is sometimes. Try again!’ So I would.”
With a solid foundation in marine ecology and focus on coral reef studies, Villafranca looks forward to bringing the lessons she learned in her liberal arts education to her master’s and doctoral studies and her future career in marine conservation science.
“Now that I’ve graduated, I look back on my UD education with gratitude and excitement for what it will provide me in the world, and what I will be able to provide to the world with it,” she said.