Research Stories

Dr. Momar Ndao: Studying the bugs responsible for some of the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases

Dr. Momar Ndao

Kayemor is a village located in the southern part of Senegal. Small in size and considered underdeveloped by Western standards, it holds a special place in Dr. Momar Ndao’s heart. He was born there and although he no longer calls it home, it was in Kayemor that he was inspired to pursue a career in medicine. With the odds stacked against him, Dr. Ndao set out on a journey to fulfill his dream, and his relentless pursuit of success took him far away from his African roots and led him to the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and Montreal, a city he now proudly calls home.

Dr. Ndao openly describes his childhood as difficult. “I grew up in very tough conditions,” he explains. “My mother is completely blind because she contracted a tropical disease. Unfortunately, she was misdiagnosed and as a result, she never received the treatment that she needed. My father did not have any formal education and to make ends meet, he became a taxi driver in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. My mother’s illness made it impossible for her to follow and she was left behind in the village,” he says.

At that time, it was customary for Dr. Ndao to follow his father and so, at the tender age of five, he was uprooted from his mother’s care to start a new life in Dakar. He was also separated from his sister, who remained in Kayemor with his mother. “Adjusting to life in Dakar was challenging. I no longer had my mother with me and my father worked evenings. There were also many times when food was scarce and on top of going to school, I had to do most of the household chores as well,” he recalls.

Despite these hardships, Dr. Ndao never lost sight of his goal. “My uncle contracted a similar illness to the one my mother had,” he says. “I witnessed their suffering first hand and this served as my inspiration to work even harder so I could help them and ensure that others in my country didn’t experience this same fate,” he states.

Excelling in his studies, Dr. Ndao earned a full scholarship to university in Senegal, completing his Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Veterinary Medicine. He was then recruited to study in Belgium, and earned his Master’s degree and PhD while continuing to hone his craft in the field of parasitology, the study of the relationship between parasites, their human hosts, and their impact on the health of the population. It is Dr. Ndao’s expertise in this complex and technical field that brought him to Montreal, where he is a scientist in the Infectious Diseases and Immunity in Global Health Program at the Research Institute of the MUHC and the Director of the National Reference Centre for Parasitology. “My journey to Canada was quite spontaneous and unexpected,” he recalls. “While I was living in Belgium, I saw an advertisement in the paper that the Canadian and American governments were accepting applications for new immigrants. I started to read about both countries and I felt that Canada would be a good fit for me, especially because it had two official languages and I grew up speaking French,” he says.

As a leading expert in his field, Dr. Ndao has been instrumental in establishing the MUHC as a major hub for the testing and diagnosing of parasitic diseases. He is often called upon to evaluate and diagnose some of the most obscure medical cases and while his work is a source of great pride, making a tangible difference in the lives of people is what matters to him most. “I have seen patients who were told they had cancer or needed a heart transplant, but they actually contracted a parasitic disease. It is so satisfying to be able to alleviate their suffering and greatly improve their quality of life,” Dr. Ndao says.

He knew Montreal was a special place to live the first time he took the bus. “When I got on, the driver said ‘bonjour’ and when I got off, the driver said ‘merci’. You would never see that in Europe and it is just one small example of what makes this city so unique. The people are also so friendly and I don’t think I could find this anywhere else, and I’ve travelled a lot!” he says smiling. Like most Montrealers, Dr. Ndao thoroughly enjoys the city’s culinary scene but he is no slouch in the kitchen. An avid cook, his signature dish is yassa, a traditional and spicy Senegalese meal containing poultry or fish and served with rice and vegetables.

Every year, Dr. Ndao returns to Senegal to visit with his family. He also uses it as an opportunity to inspire the next generation of scholars because during his stay, he teaches at the local university in Dakar. “I tell my students that they need to do three things: love what they do, help people, and give back to their community,” he states. Although Dr. Ndao enjoys travelling back to his homeland and connecting with his roots, he has truly embraced Montreal as his home. “Without a doubt, Montreal is my home and my life is here. Every time I hold my Canadian passport in my hand, I am so proud and I don’t think that feeling will ever go away,” he says.

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