by Ken Kostel

It would be easy for any graduate student to turn inward during his or her time at Columbia University, to focus solely on the long, rigorous task of publishing journal articles and completing the thesis. It would be easier still for a newly minted scientist to look anywhere other than his or her impoverished home country to launch a promising career. But Ousmane Ndiaye, a native of Senegal, isn’t a typical graduate student.

Ousmane Feature from IRI on Vimeo.

As a student, and now scientist, Ndiaye has focused on developing better methods of forecasting short-term and seasonal climate variability in the African Sahel. Throughout his time at Columbia, he has been an active member of the Senegalese community in Central Harlem, where he and others in this tightly knit group help newcomers adapt to life in the United States, providing an informal safety net for those who fall on hard times. In many ways, these two parts of his life are inseparable.

Ndiaye’s scientific work at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) under the supervision of Neil Ward has centered around developing accurate ways to predict both the character of the rainy season in the Sahel and the onset of the rainy season over his native Senegal. For small farmers who make up the bulk of the region’s rural agricultural population, knowing when and what to plant often make the difference between a successful growing season and famine. It can also help countries and relief organizations anticipate and plan for an outbreak of climate related diseases such as malaria—a need that Ndiaye knows only too well. “Everyone in the Sahel is affected by malaria in some way,” he said. “I got it. Climate has a huge impact on our society.”

Now Ndiaye’s research stands to impact people all across the Sahel as well. His work revealed that the onset of the monsoon in the region is tightly linked to global sea surface temperatures, while the onset in southern Senegal is tied most closely to the southern Atlantic dipole-a pattern of temperature differences involving the northern and southern tropical Atlantic. It is work that could easily catapult Ndiaye to a tenure-track position in the United States.

Undecided about his future plans after graduation, Ndiaye sought out the advice of Mamadou Diouf, the head of Columbia’sInstitute for African Studies. Even though the two men had never met before, it was natural for Ndiaye to approach the elder Diouf, because in the Senegalese tradition, age and experience garner real respect. Even in an emigrant community, social mores resonate. “Wherever we go, we recognize ourselves,” said Diouf. “It’s a way of rebuilding familiar ties.”

Diouf didn’t steer Ndiaye toward any one path, but, in conversation, it soon became clear that Ndiaye was intent on reconnecting with both his native Senegal and with the people who live in the Sahel. Ndiaye is now the head of climate and society at Senegal’s National Meteorological Agency.

“It’s rare to see someone like him go back,” said Diouf, sounding like a true elder brother. “But he knows the misery of the Sahel and he wants to contribute to the development of his country. I am very proud of him.”

Ken Kostel was previously senior science writer at the Earth Institute and is currently web editor and science writer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He graduated in 2003 from Columbia with masters degrees in journalism and Earth & Environmental Science.