CBC News has learned Montemagno’s nephew, Kyle Minor, was not only a doctoral student in his uncle’s much-touted Ingenuity Lab at the U of A between 2013 and 2017, Montemagno also personally supervised his graduate studies.
The academic supervision of a relative by a professor is considered a conflict of interest under university policy. But the U of A says Montemagno did not disclose any conflict to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research.
After learning of the conflict from CBC News, the university on Thursday said it “is taking appropriate steps to ensure academic integrity and resolve the conflict. Those steps include changing the composition of the student’s supervisory committee and exam committee, removing Dr. Montemagno.”
Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at York University in Toronto, said in his 25 years as an academic he had never heard of a supervisory relationship involving a family member.
“It’s just common knowledge that type of thing just can’t occur or should not occur,” Leblanc said.
Montemagno left the U of A in 2017 to become chancellor of Southern Illinois University (SIU). He did not respond to several requests for comment over the past week.
The state of Illinois is now conducting an investigation after the The Daily Egyptian, the university’s student newspaper, revealed SIU had created jobs for Melissa and Jeff Germain, Montemagno’s daughter and son-in-law.
Calls to Minor’s home were not answered and he did not respond to an email sent to him through the Merck corporation in Kenilworth, New Jersey, where he is now a senior scientist, according to his online profile.
Third relative in U of A lab
Montemagno is an internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. He was recruited from the University of Cincinnati, which had also employed the Germains.
In addition to leading the Ingenuity Lab at the U of A, he served as director of the biomaterials program for the Canada Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology.
Earlier this month, CBC News reported that the university recruited Montemagno in 2012 by agreeing to his condition that it hire the Germains for jobs in his lab. The two were given jobs for which they were not formally required to apply.
The university’s engineering faculty defended the hiring, insisting it was not a conflict of interest.
The engineering faculty initially told CBC News it had no knowledge Minor was Montemagno’s nephew.
“We have no documentation that indicates the university was made aware of a familial relationship between Dr. Montemagno and Kyle Minor at any time,” the faculty said in a statement.
But several former and present Ingenuity lab staff, researchers and professors told CBC News the family relationship between Montemagno and Minor was commonly known from the time Minor joined the lab in 2013.
Both Montemagno and the Ingenuity Lab have publicized the relationship on Twitter.
Kyle Minor, my grad student awarded UofA Undergrad Research Mentor Award. Future leader! So proud! <a href=”https://t.co/So73qdeWzh”>pic.twitter.com/So73qdeWzh</a>
On March 16, 2017, Montemagno tweeted congratulations to “my grad student, Kyle Minor,” including a photo of Minor receiving a mentorship award.
The next morning, the Twitter account for the university’s Ingenuity Lab tweeted a posed photo of Montemagno and Minor that said: “Many congratulations to PhD candidate Kyle Minor on his award for outstanding mentorship in undergraduate research and creative activities.”
Many congratulations to PhD candidate Kyle Minor on his award for Outstanding Mentorship in Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities <a href=”https://t.co/IgljBKz8GM”>pic.twitter.com/IgljBKz8GM</a>
Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, was the Ingenuity Lab’s director of communications. But it’s not known if she issued the tweet of her father and cousin.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Melissa has a bachelor’s degree in geology and was initially hired as a copy editor before becoming communications director of the lab her father directed.
In June 2015, Montemagno tweeted a photo of himself atop a mountain with the caption: “Had a great weekend climbing (with) Jeff Germain, Kyle Minor (and) Brent Peters in Banff National Park.” Peters is a mountain guide from Canmore.
Had great weekend climbing w/ Jeff Germain, Kyle Minor & Brent Peters in Banff National Park <a href=”http://t.co/eY27Y66mlL”>pic.twitter.com/eY27Y66mlL</a>
Jeff Germain holds a bachelor of arts in biology. But documents obtained through freedom of information show Montemagno was asked to write a job description for his son-in-law’s job as lab manager.
Germain was paid $120,000 a year, which included a $25,000 “market supplement.” The documents however, noted that Germain had extensive experience as a lab manager.
A search of patents associated with the university show Montemagno, Jeff Germain and Minor, along with several other U of A researchers filed a patent application in 2014 with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It was granted in November 2017.
Leblanc said that even if the university was unaware of the family relationship between Montemagno and Minor, it is telling that no one in the lab reported the blatant conflict of interest.
He said people often won’t report conflicts because they fear reprisal, which in turn indicates there is clearly either no, or an insufficient, procedure in place to allow protected whistleblowing.
The absence of a safe whistleblowing process “can create an environment of favouritism, toxicity, of bullying, of inappropriate relationships,” Leblanc said.
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