Winter School in Senegal

I have been back in Bremen for a week now and spent most of the time sorting and editing the photos and videos I took in Senegal. It was a wonderful experience, meeting the students from Africa, getting to know about AIMS Senegal, a really interesting and worthy project which aims to bring international teaching and research to Africa. I was part of a winter school in computational modeling there, and participated in field work at the Delta du Saloum afterwards. But first, let me tell you about the course…

Winter School in Computational Modeling

Ago in his element

After starting an internship in Agostino Merico’s research group in systems ecology at the Leibniz-Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) roughly one year ago I had become a quasi-member of the group, and will most likely start a PhD with them right after finishing my masters in marine biology at the University of Bremen. This gave me the opportunity to join Ago (the group leader), Jai, Esteban and Davi (all Post-Docs in the group) on the trip to Senegal.

Through a BMBF (German Ministry of Education and Research) research grant they had the funding to organize a course in cooperation with AIMS Senegal and Moustapha Fall, a professor of mathematics working there. Serious preparations had been going on since last September and once dates and a curriculum was set, the winter school was advertised to German and African students who could apply for a place in the course, with food, accommodation and travel costs included.

In the end, 5 German and 20 African students were selected. January was a blur of working on my master thesis, last minute preparations and off we went on the 3rd of February.

Coming to Senegal

We took off from a wet and cold Bremen, transferred in Paris and arrived in Dakar to a comfortably dry 20 degree night. After a 40 minute drive by car south of the Blaise Diagne International Airport, we arrived at the hotel in Saly. It is a tourist hotspot for French and Dutch retirees and the hotel was nice, however it felt weird for the entire duration of our stay to be the only group of students amongst all these potbellied grandpas on vacation.

Relaxing in the Hotel on Sunday

We spent the Sunday recovering from a day of travel and slowly adjusted to the tropical sunshine, that I had gravely missed in the last few months in Bremen. For the lecturers and also for me, the work started right away. Whilst they were preparing the course and instructing the students that were staying at the hotel, I was trying to figure out how to do my part: I was the designated photographer and documentary film-maker. Even though I have produced a few videos, this project was much bigger in scope and length than anything I’ve done before.. and I am both excited and scared of the amount of work lying ahead of me.

First forays out of the hotel into the busy streets of Saly revealed a world entirely different from what the german students were used to. The concrete road was fringed in dusty yellow sand, all kinds of vehicles from mini buses to horse carriages competed for space and the at most two-storied houses were accentuated by the occasional lonely baobab tree. As Saly was one of the touristic centers of Senegal, we did not get far before being roped into a friendly conversation that would usually end with an invitation to some local restaurant or store, but the locals quickly noticed that our french wasn’t too great and that we had already payed for food at the hotel.

view into a side street in Saly

The Course

The course started off Monday morning at 9 am at the AIMS institute with an introduction into the underlying principles of ecological modeling. To get to the institute, we had to drive all the way through M’bour, which could take anything from 20 to 45 mins, depending on the traffic and time of day. The drive itself was quite an experience, bumping right through town on dirt roads, with the bustle of city life going on all around us. The Institute is located in a nature reserve, south of the town and right at the beach. AIMS is a network of institutes for mathematical sciences that bring an international level of teaching and research to Africa. Neil Turok founded AIMS South Africa with the goal of creating a network of 15 AIMS centers as part of the “Next Einstein Initiative” (he will be from Africa!) and AIMS Senegal is among the 6 institutes currently in existence.

In addition to the 25 students chosen for this course, a few more resident Master & PhD students from the AIMS institute joined and we had a packed classroom with people from all over the world (including the lecturers from Costa Rica, Brazil & Italy).The students from Africa mostly had a backgrounds in mathematics, the German students in marine biology, and for almost all of them the topic of the course was something completely new. The aim of the course was to introduce computational modeling in the programming language python and teach the students how to develop such models from scratch, starting from a scientific question. Ago’s own research ranges from topics of coral reef symbiosis and phytoplankton ecology, to modeling social systems and resource management. Despite these diverse topics the tools stay surprisingly similar and the winter school had the students code their own models for disease spreading, phytoplankton in the oceanic mixed layer, HIV-infection process, social segregation and predator-prey interaction.

Kwabena, a PhD student in our group, helping Sidy, a PhD student at AIMS, with some coding

As the week went on, the models increased in complexity and most students grasped the concepts quickly, but translating this understanding into actual python code is another story. The practical exercise in the afternoon evoked all kinds of emotions over time, from pure frustration to the sweet joy of finally seeing the modeling result plotted nicely in python. It really gave a sense of what it is like to work in ecological modeling. Ago has quite an eccentric teaching style, that can at times be frustrating for the more reserved german student (me), but in the setting of this course it captured everyones attention and helped dissolve any cultural boundaries or preconceptions. It was clear: everyone should participate and ask questions.

That’s what we did all day

I really enjoyed seeing the development of the students over time as they got used to Ago’s temperament and started to interact much more freely with the lecturers and fellow students. On the last two days, most of the difficult points were explained in English by Ago and then translated and discussed in French amongst the students, most of whom were francophone (from Senegal or Cameroon).

Fidel, Lionel, Irene and Assefa figuring out equations of HIV-infection

In fact, I have never experienced a course at the graduate level (or below), where all the students were so eager to learn. Over the course of the week I got to know a few of the students at AIMS a bit better, and the realities they face, and the journey they have gone through to end up at such a prestigious institute in Africa. It really helps with putting your own struggles into perspective. We had great fun too, but to hear of the persistent problem of slavery in Mauritania (!), and not being able to even just apply for PhD positions in the US because the costs of the required English proficiency test (TOEFL or GRE) are too high… and then to think of all the problems German students are constantly complaining about..

Crowdfunding for Lionel to come to Bremen for an Internship

Needless to say, it was a good experience for me, and the lectures, and we all felt that something can be done to give these bright students more opportunities in the future. Three students, that were really engaged and also interested in working with our group on ecological models will most likely come to Bremen for a month some time this year and work on a small research project, and Ago can help them with applying for PhD positions or even develop their own PhD projects to apply for funding themselves (at DAAD or BMBF for example).

For one of those students, Lionel Ngoupeyo Tondji, we are starting a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the flight and his stay in Bremen, so that he can hopefully come to Bremen in May or June:

If you have some time, please check it out:

I have been busy setting up the crowdfunding campaign until now, if you check instagram or flickr, you can see more photos from the trip. There will be another blog post about the field work that we did in the Delta du Saloum, sampling plastic debris in coastal bird nests and as the biggest project, which might take a few months still, I am editing a video documentary about it all.. whilst I am also finishing my master thesis.. so please bear with me! 😀

Author’s Note:
The crowdfunding campaign was successful within 2 weeks! And Lionel came to Bremen for a month in June, during which he prepared a PhD Proposal with Agostino Merico. The finished documentary can be viewed here: 

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