SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY — Employees of Montemagno’s nanotechnology lab come forward about the “toxic” and “hostile” work environment he created in a lab where he employed family
Nine months after Carlo Montemagno left a position as director of Ingenuity Lab to assume the chancellorship at SIU’s Carbondale campus, some members of the Alberta community are still picking up the pieces of what they call a failed project brought to life and then abandoned by its director.
Ingenuity Lab was established in 2012 by the government of Alberta in partnership with the University of Alberta and Alberta Innovates to conduct nanotechnology research related to health, environment, energy and agriculture.
Though a reason was not explicitly given, funding for the lab will be cut this year following a review of the lab’s operations.
Some individuals who worked closely with Montemagno said the employment of his family members, combined with poor leadership, may have contributed to the early downfall of what was intended to be a 10-year-long $100 million project to bolster innovation within Alberta’s oil-reliant economy.
Life in the lab
“He said ‘jump,’ and we said ‘how high?’” said Josh Cunningham, a graduate student who was co-supervised by Montemagno in his lab from 2013 to 2017. Cunningham now works as a research assistant at the University of Alberta.
Though Cunningham called Montemagno a “driven dude” who helped him make beneficial connections in his field of study, he also said over time the director cultivated a “hostile,” “weird” and “toxic” work environment.
“[Montemagno] has big dreams, big visions,” Cunningham said. “He has a great ability to sell ideas and convince people that things are possible, but from what I’ve seen is it was lacking in the actual ability to get people to actually achieve those goals or help them achieve them.”
Cunningham said Montemagno’s focus on final product over process often left people floundering. This, he said, wasn’t a good fit for academia.
“[Montemagno] likes people who like him,” said a former research associate at the lab. “In that sense he’s the quintessential narcissist. So, ironically enough, it’s easy to get along with [Montemagno] because if you tell him that he’s great, that he’s fantastic and all you’re trying to do is coast along and make him happy, he’s going to be your best friend.”
The former research associate was one of 11 people interviewed in Edmonton for this story who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of harming their careers.
Adam Bergren, a research officer at the National Research Council of Canada, said it appeared to him that Ingenuity Lab never really got off the ground.
Bergren shared a workspace with lab employees and said as an observer it seemed the lab became its own brand, and the partnership encouraged between the Nanotechnology Research Center and the university didn’t quite see the light of day.
He said he often observed a chaotic workplace, with people frequently expressing frustration and confusion.
“There was an inner circle, and then everyone else,” said a former researcher at the former National Institute for Nanotechnology — recently renamed the Nanotechnology Research Center — who had experience in Ingenuity Lab. Montemagno “tried really hard to make it seem like everyone was part of this family, but it was blatantly obvious that it wasn’t.”
The former Ingenuity Lab researcher said a goal of Montemagno’s initiative included facilitating the sharing of lab equipment, knowledge, workspace and funding among different groups of professionals who might not interact as easily otherwise.
The long-term goals were to tackle global problems by conducting interdisciplinary nanotechnology research, Montemagno said.
“The tragedy in this is that what he was hired to do – it was needed, it was desperately needed,” said a previous research associate at the lab. “The university needed more coordination, needed that investment, needed the ability to break down the silos in-between the camps. But you can either do that by bringing in the hydrogen bomb and after that there’s nothing left, or you can bring in the peace-builder.”
He classified Montemagno as the former.
“They chose the quintessential alpha male type that thrives not only on the recognition – so they chose a narcissistic character – but they chose somebody who believes that he’s better than everyone else,” the former research associate said.
“My management style is to hold people accountable for their work,” Montemagno said in response to complaints about his leadership. “Some rise to the challenge and are successful, while others are not.”
All of Montemagno’s responses were given via email as he said he was unavailable for an interview.
The former Ingenuity Lab researcher said what bothered him most was some people inside Ingenuity Lab claimed accomplishments that were either inflated or wrong altogether.
“When you’re a scientist you only have one reputation, so if the story around town is that you worked at Ingenuity Lab so you probably manufactured your numbers like everybody else that manufactured their numbers, that’s a tough one,” the researcher said.
A lab technician who lost her job in the most recent round of funding cuts said even though she is searching for a new job, she doesn’t include Ingenuity Lab on her resume because she doesn’t want to be associated with Montemagno and his family.
She said there was a hostile environment during her time in the lab, but didn’t actively try to leave because it would be difficult to find a job with similar opportunities.
A postdoctoral fellow who also spent time working under Montemagno and is actively looking for job openings at the University of Alberta said he keeps the lab off of his resume for the same reason.
Lab under review
In June 2017, a review of Ingenuity Lab was authorized. The process wrapped up in September as part of a review of all Alberta Innovates funded programs, said Robert Semeniul, the new media specialist at Alberta Innovates.
Montemagno announced his relocation to SIU shortly after the review got under way. Meanwhile, an interim director — Murray Gray — was appointed by the university to redirect the initiative, Semeniul said.
“I was looking for an institutional leadership position that presented new challenges and opportunities — where there was work to be done and I could make a difference,” Montemagno said of leaving Alberta for Illinois. “I also missed interacting and working directly with students.”
“This was supposed to generate incredible amounts of economic activity,” said a former researcher at the former National Institute for Nanotechnology who had experience in the lab. “After awhile — three or four years — people were astonished at the lack of anything coming out of this lab, out of this giant pile of money that was being spent.”
Montemagno said through ground-breaking research the lab attracted external grant funding, including $9 million the last year he ran the lab.
In 2014, Ingenuity Lab was recognized by The New Economy magazine as the best nanotechnology research organization.
The final review has not been made public. Gray did not respond to requests for comment.
Keeping family close
In early April in Edmonton the remnants of the Ingenuity Lab were gradually erased from the Nanotechnology Research Center on the University of Alberta’s campus.
A nametag pinned to a cubicle wall there displayed the name Kyle Minor, Montemagno’s nephew, and graduate student and project leader in his uncle’s lab.
Minor was one of three family members Montemagno employed at Ingenuity Lab. Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, and son-in-law, Jeffrey Germain, (both of whom are now employed at SIU) were also given jobs at the lab in Canada. The possibility of the Germains’ employment was mentioned in Montemagno’s hiring contract in Alberta.
“I can see why the people who hired [Montemagno] liked him, because he has a charismatic presence and he says the right things to the people he is speaking to,” a previous research associate at the lab said.
Montemagno was brought to the university of Alberta in 2012 with an annual salary of $500,000, almost $400,000 in U.S. currency at Tuesday’s exchange rate. He also received a $1,000,000 interest-free housing loan, according to his employment paperwork.
“Your intention to employ, through funding available under the NEBSL Accelerator initiative, your son-in-law and daughter in positions commensurate with their education and experience is acknowledged,” Montemagno’s contract read.
The contract, which purported to follow the University’s “Employment Policy” and “Managing Conflict of Interest in Employment Procedure” was signed by David Lynch, Alberta’s dean of engineering at the time of the hire. Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.
According to emails obtained through public information requests, there was a personal agreement between Lynch and Montemagno that the expenses for the immigration costs for him and his family would also be covered.
“On occasion, the recruitment of specialized faculty members includes a provision for the hiring of a family member into a position commensurate with their education and experience, and subject to our recruitment policy,” said Kiann McNeill, spokesman for the University of Alberta.
Melissa Germain was hired as a laboratory technician in March 2013 with a salary of $3,452.68 a month (about $2,740 U.S.) paid for by a trust fund. Her LinkedIn profile shows she was promoted to director of communications in 2015, and Montemagno confirmed that. However, none of the contracts obtained through information requests had her listed in any position aside from lab technician, though her pay increased to $5,995.67 (about $4,760 in U.S. currency) a month in 2017.
Jeffrey Germain, Montemagno’s son-in-law, was hired in October 2012 as a research associate earning $120,000 a year, about $95,000 in U.S. currency. Montemagno signed his contract. An organizational chart from Sept. 27, 2012, obtained through information requests, shows Jeffrey Germain directly below Montemagno.
In 2015, an associate director position was added and Jeffrey then reported to that person instead of Montemagno to eliminate the potential for conflict, according to an email sent by Engineering Dean Fraser Forbes to faculty relations personnel.
Montemagno said in an email statement that neither of the Germains reported to him in Alberta and that their relation to him was well-documented.
Funding for the Ingenuity Lab was significantly reduced April 1, and all funding will end on Sept. 30, McNeill said.
Eight lab employees were laid off on March 31, and five did not have their contracts renewed. The remaining employees have end dates running up to the Sept. 30 closure.
“How could we blow this so bad when it looked so good?” a former research associate said. “How could it become so controversial, so dominated by hostility toward others? It became the thing that it was supposed to break. It became this extremely siloed, extremely closed environment that is exactly what that thing was designed to bust up in the broader context of the university.”