Michelle Samuel-Foo: More than just farming

Feb. 21—GRIFFIN — As a child, Michelle Samuel-Foo would wake early on Saturday mornings to help her mother get the crops ready for market.

She loved working on her family's farm, where they grew everything from spinach to okra to tomatoes. Being in the field and watching insects do their jobs to help — or sometimes hinder — the family's efforts to make a living from the land were favorite pastimes.

But Samuel-Foo saw how difficult the rural way of life could be in her hometown of Sangre Grande in Trinidad and Tobago. She wanted something different for herself: formal higher education.

Samuel-Foo thought she'd immediately enter the work force after graduating from Brewton-Parker College, a small liberal arts school in Mount Vernon. But her advisor had collaborated with the University of Georgia's Jerry Johnson, who was working on a wheat-related project at UGA's Griffin campus. And he thought Samuel-Foo would be a good fit for UGA's crop and soil sciences program.

She was.

After earning her master's degree under Johnson's tutelage, Samuel-Foo stayed to study integrated pest management for her doctoral degree, but this time with co-mentors UGA entomologist John All and plant breeder Roger Boerma (both now retired).

"During my last semester at UGA, I started to look for jobs because being an international student, that clock is ticking," Samuel-Foo said. "You want to be sure you have employment lined up to gain some experience in your field."

Samuel-Foo found that and more at the University of Florida, where she joined the Institute of Food and Agriculture as a faculty member working in specialty crop pesticide registrations as part of the IR-4 program. At UF-IFAS she had responsibility for ensuring that residue field trials were conducted under good laboratory practices to help establish tolerances for reduced risk pesticides. In the process, she worked with a vast network of entomologists, weed scientists, and plant pathologists across 13 Southern states and Puerto Rico who cooperated in the program.

After about a decade, Samuel-Foo joined the faculty at Alabama State University, a non-land grant HBCU that didn't have any agriculture-focused program at the time.

"I recognized that the college community was just ripe for an introduction to urban gardening and programs dealing with sustainable agriculture," Samuel-Foo says.

The administration at ASU, led by Quinton Ross, agreed and they allocated half an acre on the campus for a teaching and research garden to be established.

"I think COVID-19 really helped us realize how critical food insecurity is on college campuses, particularly minority-serving institutions," Samuel-Foo said. "Introducing agricultural programming is critical because you're helping to bridge that gap."

That passion for helping people recognize the power of agriculture and entomology as a field informs her current position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture as well.

Samuel-Foo is keenly aware that she's somewhat of an anomaly in the field, a black entomologist. Only about 3% of the Entomological Society of America's membership identifies as people of color. In 2021, Samuel-Foo was awarded the Founders' Memorial Award, one of the highest accolades given by the society. During her keynote address, she highlighted the work of USDA-ARS Hall of Fame black entomologist, the late Ernest Harris.

"I've had many opportunities bestowed upon me and have benefited from tremendous mentors throughout my career," Samuel-Foo said. "I recognize that I'm somewhat of an unlikely success story, unlikely in the sense that I came from a very humble background in Trinidad, immigrated to the U.S. and was able to earn a terminal degree and build a successful career out of my love for agriculture."