Trinidadian-born entomologist Dr Michelle Samuel-Foo never had all her school books and had to study by the light of a candle whenever there was a power outage at her home in Baker Trace, Guaico. Still, she had a fire inside that would not go out.

At 44, and after just two years of being an assistant professor at Alabama State University (ASU), Samuel-Foo has been elected president of the Southeastern Entomological Society of America; becoming the first black woman to do so. On November 11, she will become the first black female feature speaker of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) at its Founders’ Memorial Lecture. There, she will be awarded the ESA Founders’ Memorial Award for her outstanding contribution to the study of insects and how they affect crops and humans.

Her winning formula for success is consistent hard work, making good first impressions and being unafraid to connect with others, she told Guardian Media via telephone from her Montgomery, Alabama, home recently.

“My dad really believed that I could do anything. He saw how hard I worked and encouraged me. Sometimes I would study by candlelight when the electricity went. I’d be doing homework without the text. My dad just really believed that I could be something. And I guess I always carried his belief in me,” she added.

Research in integrated pest management, pesticide regulations and legally cultivated hemp form part of Samuel-Foo’s expertise. The gifted entomologist has started a teaching garden at her campus where her undergrad students learn how to develop sustainable crops in an urban setting. She has also given expert testimony before the US House of Representatives on means of combating Asian giant hornets, a dangerous threat to honeybees which are vital to the pollination of crops. In collaboration with two other universities in Alabama, Samuel-Foo said she has also applied to tech giant, Apple Inc, for a US$ 20 million grant regarding the use of hemp to make plastic products.

Hailing the American mentors and professors who lined her road to achievement, Samuel-Foo credited her formative years in Trinidad with shaping her path.

The fourth of seven children, the Sangre Grande native reflected on her parents’ struggle to provide for their family. Her father, Winston Samuel, who dropped out of school in Standard 3, balanced working barefooted at a sawmill in Grande with cultivating crops on their small piece of land, she recalled. Her mother, Radica Samuel, who had a secondary school education, helped her husband and children grow produce which they sold at the Arima market on Saturdays.

“Our summers weren’t about going abroad. This was the time for us to make some extra money, working the land. There was this one summer when my dad said: we’re going to have a special treat today; a truck is coming by. And in my mind I’m thinking there’s going to be some kind of ride involved. That was not the case; the van actually had a big load of cow manure that wasn’t fully cured, so you could imagine the smell. It was our responsibility to take the manure in bags or buckets and put it on the base of citrus trees we were growing.”

Describing the experience as her first real introduction to agriculture and entomology, Samuel-Foo said while the others found it to be off-putting, she was fascinated by the process and the various insects inhabiting the soil and crops.

At her alma mater, North Eastern College, she never had all her textbooks and would have to walk to her friend’s house to do homework.

“It forced me to work really hard and persevere, and though I didn’t know at the time, that was a skill set that proved very fruitful for me throughout my university career,” she said.

With sheer grit, Samuel-Foo completed A’ Levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths, aided by the late Ms Brenda Chaumette, her former English teacher, and Mrs Annette Brizan, her former principal, who both took a keen interest in her academic development.

It was while working as a bank teller at Republic Bank in Tunapuna two years later, that co-worker, Jacynth Blandin, encouraged her to take the SATs as a means of furthering her education in the United States. Again, prompted by Blandin, she attended a US College Fair in Port-of-Spain and made sure to introduce herself to admissions counsellors. Her solid SAT scores and amiable personality would win her a scholarship at Brewton-Parker College, Mount Vernon, Georgia.

Although the small town of Mount Vernon turned out to be a far cry from the big, bright lights of New York she had imagined, Samuel-Foo appreciated the quiet, 2,500-student university, taking every extra course and class available. She ended up completing her Bachelor of Arts in Biology degree in two-and-a-half years rather than in the usual four, summa cum laude, no less.

Unsure of her next move, the department chair at Brewton-Parker, who had recognised her academic prowess, encouraged her to do post-graduate work, a concept alien to her at the time.

“Looking back, I realise that many people were just looking out for me. I didn’t come from money, I didn’t come from means. It was just pure hard work and having the right attitude,” Samuel-Foo said.

This credo proved true again as she landed a graduate assistantship (tuition, room and board as payment for graduate work) to pursue her Masters and PhD at one of the US’ foremost research institutions, the University of Georgia (UGA). There, the daughter of an East Indian mother and an Afro-Trinidadian father was undaunted by being one of only two females of colour in the university’s entomology department.

“I was able to make friends regardless of race. To me, everybody is a potential friend. My humble beginnings helped me realise that everyone matters and you treat everyone with respect,” she explained.

Drawing on memories of her mother’s tactics for controlling pests on their crops back home, she nurtured a passion for taxonomy; agronomy; entomology and pest management.

Her belief in being optimistic, diligent and memorable is one she has tried to instil in not only her students but in her sons, Yohan, 17, Oliver, 14 and Noah, ten. At home, the boys readily capitalise on their mother’s skills in their vertical garden consisting of buckets on trellises (structure for climbing plants) where they grow tomatoes and cucumbers.

She makes sure to educate her sons about their Trinbagonian heritage, as well and often lets them read her childhood journal on her struggles to success. Trinidadians have a reputation for achieving academic excellence, she told Guardian Media. She hopes to inspire many to keep it that way.

Q&A with Samuel-Foo

Gillian Caliste talks further with trailblazer in entomology, Dr Michelle Samuel-Foo about her work and her pastimes.

Tell me about some of your work concerning hemp.

Hemp is very similar to marijuana. The main difference is the delta tetrahydrocannabinol content…The hemp plant is very versatile. You can use hemp to make plastics. We’ve submitted a proposal to Apple Inc for that type of research. A lot of the work that we’re looking at is the insect profile that affects this crop. As it’s a brand new commodity, we don’t know very much in terms of pest management and only a few pesticides are currently available to growers. Some people are brewing this commodity (hemp) as tea, they’re extracting the oils to use as tinctures, even as edibles, so you have to be very careful spraying with conventional materials because of human safety.

Any research or breakthroughs regarding Asian murder hornets?

The Asian murder hornets offer a first-hand view into invasive species and how they can decimate native species and habitats. Back in June of this year, I actually testified before the US House of Representatives as an expert witness on the Asian giant hornet. This is an invasive insect that is trying to get domiciled in Washington State. They just found the first live nest a couple of weeks ago. It presents a very different pest profile; it does not affect industrial hemp, the crop that I’m working on now.

How do you juggle all of your achievements with motherhood?

I actually had Yohan when I was a Masters student, I had Oliver as a PhD student and Noah when I had my first job at the University of Florida as a faculty member. I’ll admit that it’s been challenging, but as a parent you want to ensure that you’re setting the example for your children. When they see that their mum is receiving these accolades, I want them to know that it’s not something that’s being handed to me; I’m being recognised for my ethic of hard work. They see me pulling the long days and nights, but still coming home and cooking too.

What about hobbies, what do you do to unwind?

I absolutely love Carnival! I was in Trinidad for Carnival this year and I was so glad. I’m a late bloomer in terms of Carnival. It wasn’t until I finished my education that I participated with a friend in 2014 and now I just love it. And I’m a fitness enthusiast. I work out five days a week, doing CrossFit and weights. Gym therapy is how I start the day at 4:30 every morning.