Lead Dawg: Michelle Samuel-Foo

A voice of encouragement, a force for change

For Michelle Samuel-Foo (MS — Agronomy, ’03; PhD— Entomology, ’08) the quest for “more” has its roots in the agricultural fields of her Caribbean home. As a child of subsistence farmers, she helped her parents from preparation to harvest and honed skills that set her on course to become a change-maker in agricultural academia.

Growing up in the small village of Sangre Grande, a rural part of Trinidad and Tobago, opportunity and success — whether in the fields or the classroom — wasn’t something that came easily. It had to be earned through diligence and continual motivation.

So Samuel-Foo worked as hard in the classroom as she did in the fields, graduating high school among the top of her class and then using that same motivation to be the first and only one of her seven siblings to attend college.

“Growing up, we were poor, we didn’t have a lot of extras,” Samuel-Foo said. “My dad had little formal education, but I saw how hard both he and my mother worked for all of us. I knew that I wanted an education and a different way of life … I didn’t know what that would be, I just knew I wanted my name to be associated with excellence.”

Samuel-Foo developed the strength to persevere while working on her family’s farm. Now in her chosen field of research, she hopes to be heard as a voice of encouragement for anyone blazing new trails.

“I never had the formula for success, but I never felt sorry for myself and I never told myself I couldn’t succeed,” she said. “I honestly believe — and say it all the time — that you have to take the initiative, even with the smallest of tasks. Whatever it is, do it to the best of your ability and you will be rewarded for it. Someone will notice.”

This proved true for Samuel-Foo, who attended a U.S. Embassy-sponsored college fair in Port of Spain, Trinidad, after graduating high school and was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Georgia. Within three months, she had left her island home and landed on the UGA Tifton campus in rural Georgia to embark on a decades-long educational journey.

In the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), she took courses that expanded her mind and was “continually blessed” by her faculty mentors — crop and soil sciences Professor Emeritus Jerry Johnson, soybean breeder Roger Boerma and entomology Professor Emeritus John All — who recognized her potential and encouraged her to keep pushing the boundaries.

As she was finishing her doctoral program at CAES, she found a job posting for an integrated pest management position with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture and knew she would be the perfect fit.

“I remember sitting in my interview and being asked by the director ‘When Georgia plays Florida, who will you root for?’” recalls Samuel-Foo. “Without fully understanding the significance of this historic rivalry, I naively said ‘Oh, definitely Georgia!’ And guess what? They still hired me!”

Over the next 10 years, Samuel-Foo served as the Southern regional coordinator for the IR-4 program, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to procure chemical registrations for growers of specialty crops in the U.S., covering 13 Southeastern states plus Puerto Rico.

“This was unlike any job I’d ever imagined,” she said. “I had to be show-ready in every way because here I was, a young, Afro-Caribbean woman, trying to earn the trust of important stakeholders and represent their needs at national events and workshops. I had to convey my competence in agronomy, entomology, pathology, weed science — you name it — as the ability to procure the registrations that our growers needed depended on my ability to understand the issues and advocate convincingly. While some would have been intimidated by this, I saw it as a challenge. Sometimes you just have to grab the bull by the horns, do your best and let your work stand for itself.”

Throughout that decade of hard work and extensive travel, Samuel-Foo had to make sacrifices in her personal life, but by 2018, with three young boys at home, she was ready for a change of pace.

CAES alumna Michelle Samuel-Foo

Michelle Samuel-Foo in a research greenhouse at Alabama State University.

Now a director of research at Alabama State University, Samuel-Foo is focusing her attention on  strengthening the historically black university by engaging the campus community and building stronger ties with local African American farmers who aren’t familiar with Extension. She hopes to bring ASU, which is not a land-grant university, into the regional sphere of conversation and research efforts in agriculture.

While she loves teaching and research, Samuel-Foo says her ultimate vision for the future is to move into college administration, where she can influence policy that will positively impact all students, but especially minorities.

“I want to rupture the stereotype among minorities that a career in agriculture means you are resigned to only occupy positions that require hard, laborious work,” she said. “There is meaningful work in the fields of agricultural engineering, product development, research, education, leadership and so much more, and I want to help make these paths more accessible.”