Award winning Senegalese alum back to MSU after more than a quarter of a century

Through Glenn and Sandy Johnson Fellowship, AFRE grad student, Hanna Carlson, brought Dr. Aliou Diagne to East Lansing

East Lansing, MI — Dr. Aliou Diagne, who received the outstanding dissertation award in 1994, was brought back to campus for a week of work and reunion through the efforts of Hanna Carlson, fourth year graduate student in the Department of Agricultural Food and Resource Economics (AFRE).  In the past year, Carlson has worked in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Research, Capacity and Influence (PRCI) as a research assistant. She was able to successfully apply for funding for Diagne to journey from his home in Senegal half-way across the world through the Glenn and Sandy Johnson Fellowship Endowment which was established to provide support to doctoral students in the Department of Agricultural Economics.

Hanna initially met Diagne in October on her first trip to Senegal, while working on her thesis with her supervising professor, Veronique Theriault who studies cowpea and gender roles in Senegal & Mali through the Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research. Hanna is studying what factors affect the decision to become a food processor and to specialize in cowpea processing in Senegal. Gender plays heavily into her research, since food processing is primarily seen as women’s work. Three months after her initial visit, Carlson again met with Diagne; this time he served as a mentor.

Vero Theriault Aliou Diagne Hanna Carlson
Vero Theriault, Aliou Diagne, and Hanna Carlson

While here at MSU, Diagne was quite familiar with our blustery winter weather, having earned both his masters and Ph.D. in the 1990s. He recalled his first agricultural economics class was in Morrill Hall on the second floor and how, listening to his professor with his midwestern accent, Diagne understood nothing of what was being said. However, that didn’t last long. With a background in mathematics, Diagne rose to the top of his class during his days as an AFRE grad student, and spoke about how he enjoyed the diverse educational backgrounds people came from to study agricultural economics, including a number of the social sciences, history, and political science.

AFRE Chairperson Scott Swinton remarked that, “It was such a pleasure to discuss with Aliou our shared interest in farmer decisions around crop varieties and technologies.  This is the same deeply thoughtful and analytical economist who stood out for those qualities, even as a student when the AFRE PhD program was much larger than it is today.”

Diagne shared that he had always been happy to help with the more mathematical side of things when a fellow student got into trouble. In spite of his technical background, when thinking about economics he explained that he focuses on decision-making process first and stated, “You have to work on your economic intuition… to think as an economist, I’m still doing very technical math, but I think about behavior first.”

Scott Swinton and Aliou Diagne
Scott Swinton and Aliou Diagne

At the end of the week Diagne led the first department seminar of 2023, where he discussed his collaborative work with Dr. Theriault and Dr. Melinda Smale. Not only did he speak to the gathered department, but after more than 25 years, AFRE Chairperson Scott Swinton was finally able to present Diagne with his certificate for his winning dissertation, Consumer Behavior and Welfare Measurement Under Uncertainty: Theory and Empirical Evidence From Senegal.  He wrote that dissertation while studying under Eric Crawford and John Strauss, and not only did he win the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation award from AFRE, but he also received an Honorable Mention Ph.D. for his dissertation from The Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA).

In his work with Carlson, he asked her, “to put aside the mathematical models, think about the sellers, how they are making their choices, without thinking about the models. Do that first. Think about their choices, the decisions they are facing.” 

When speaking about why she asked Diagne to come to campus as a mentor, Carlson explained that he was integral to the creation and cleaning of the dataset she is using as part of her dissertation, as well as having a deep understanding of Senegalese culture, and a long career as a skilled agricultural economist. While at first, she had thought they would be wading into statistical models, instead, she said she was asked to think about, “What are we finding, what are the policy implications of what we are finding, and how do the numbers and output we are getting relate to the real world and then how to convey this in ways to entice policy makers to use this information.”

Diagne explains, “The world is very complex, to make sense of the data you need first a theoretical framework… how are people making choices? In everything we do we are making choices. Only after that do you consider the appropriate statistical model.“

Dr. Diagne is currently at Gaston Berger University and is a former economist and program leader at the Africa Rice Center, a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Hanna is looking forward to revising her thesis with some fresh ideas, and is excited for her upcoming travel to Zambia for The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research annual convening where she will be giving a presentation on her research topic.

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