New RIO Brings Global Perspective and Valuable Mix of Experiences to Role
When Iowa State University’s new – and first fulltime – research integrity officer (RIO), Dianah Ngonyama, learned about the job opening, she felt the position listing was written specifically for her. And why not? Ngonyama brings to the table a global background and broad range of compliance and regulatory experiences in both the public and private sectors that made her an exceptional candidate for the position.
In previous roles in the private sector with Monsanto Company (now Bayer) and J.R. Simplot, Ngonyama contributed to the successful development and commercialization of various products that benefit farmers around the world. She represented both organizations in interactions with regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Canada and around the globe. She has been recognized by her peers in the U.S. and internationally for successfully leading large collaborative research programs that built trust with all stakeholders by following ethical research conduct principles of honesty, integrity, respect and transparency. Ngonyama is also a Certified Global Auditor for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the Excellence Through Stewardship program that promotes best biotech stewardship practices when conducting research with biotech-derived material.
Over the past three years, Ngonyama routinely engaged with university faculty in her role as commercialization manager for plant related technologies and germplasm licensing in the Iowa State University Office of Innovation Commercialization. She successfully negotiated more than 50 licensing agreements for new soybean varieties developed by Iowa State plant breeders, generating millions of dollars in royalty payments to the university.
Ngonyama’s academic background includes a bachelor’s degree with honors in Agriculture and Animal Science from the University of Zimbabwe; a master’s degree in Animal and Forage Science from the University of Reading, England; a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri; and a Ph. D in Dairy Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ngonyama is also a registered member of the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists, a Beit Scholar, a W.K. Kellogg Fellow, and was selected president of the Association of African Agricultural Professionals in the Diaspora (AAAPD) from 2016 – 2019.
The hiring of Ngonyama represents a further validation of Iowa State’s commitment to the ethical conduct of research at the university. Previously, the RIO role was an “add-on” to one of the associate vice president positions within the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR). But in 2020, the OVPR – with the support of the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost – established the new dedicated RIO position to better service and address allegations of misconduct when they arise, and to provide proactive education and outreach to the campus research community.
“When we were interviewing for the RIO position, we believed it was critical to find a candidate that combined understanding and compassion with compliance expertise and professional rigor,” said Associate Vice President for Research Jerry Zamzow. “When allegations of misconduct arise, these are high-stress, anxiety-filled situations for all parties involved. It is supremely important to have a RIO who can uphold the integrity of the process while fulfilling these duties with concern and empathy. We’re delighted to have Dianah join our team and we’re confident she will meet these challenges with integrity, professionalism, and respect.”
In the interview that follows, Ngonyama shares more insight into her academic and professional background, her passion for research, and her priorities and responsibilities as Iowa State University’s new research integrity officer.
Q. How have your previous experiences in both the academic and private sectors prepared you for this position?
A. “I’ve been involved in research all my academic and professional life – more than 25 years – starting on the lab bench, then serving as a leader and working with other scientists and mentoring young researchers both in industry and in university settings. I’ve worked in positions that enabled me to conduct research around the world, working with a variety of stakeholders. I understand how important it is to follow the principles of honesty, integrity, and transparency to build and maintain trust in research. I have a passion for building trust in research, so I’m excited to have the opportunity to put this passion to work and serve as a champion for research ethics at Iowa State University.”
Q. You just mentioned that it is important for you to serve as a champion for research ethics at Iowa State. How will you do this?
A. “I feel that the research integrity officer is a critical support mechanism for the university research community. I am responsible for promoting ethical research conduct and providing leadership in educating and training researchers in responsible conduct for research. As a champion for research ethics I have to be open and accessible and engage with everyone – faculty, staff and students – to foster and sustain an ethical research culture at Iowa State.”
Q. How will you approach the education and training role of your position that is critical for cultivating an ethical research culture at the university?
A. “Because it’s preventive and proactive, education and training are really the key part of this role. Proper education and training help reduce the possible cases of misconduct. I’m committed to finding and capitalizing on any opportunities that are available not just for training, but also engagement, with graduate students, faculty, and staff to build awareness on the importance of proper research conduct.”
Q. Why is maintaining the highest standards of research integrity important to the research enterprise at Iowa State?
A. “Ethics and integrity are the heart and soul of research and the research community at Iowa State University. We have a responsibility to our communities around Iowa and the world as a whole, because our work has a profound impact on people’s lives. Making sure Iowa State research is centered around the principles of honesty, integrity, and transparency allows us to build and maintain trust with all of our stakeholders, from our sponsors – both federal and private – to the communities we serve as one of the nation’s leading land-grant universities.”
Q. What do you expect to be the most challenging aspect of your role as RIO, and what do you believe will be the most rewarding aspect?
A. “Although I hope it will never happen, the most challenging part of this job would be if I ever have to lead an investigation into a serious case of misconduct – a case that would have the potential to tarnish the image of the university. As unlikely as it would be, I have to prepare myself and have a team in place to make sure that we perform our due diligence and handle things the proper way to arrive at a solution that delivers whatever corrective action is necessary. It’s understandable for people who are being investigated to feel some anxiety or fear about this process. Whenever I have to conduct investigations, I will always be very fair, open-minded, objective, and respectful of all parties involved. We are a diverse campus, so it’s important for me to make sure that everyone feels respected throughout the investigation process. I’ll always handle all investigations confidentially, thoroughly and in good faith so everyone can have confidence in both the process itself and its outcome.”
Without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of this job will be training and engaging with young researchers to foster their understanding about ethical research conduct. I know that I will personally feel a lot of pride and satisfaction in watching these junior researchers grow in their chosen fields and make contributions that have an impact on our world.”
Q. What is something your colleagues at Iowa State might be surprised to learn about you?
A. “First, I enjoy playing golf. Growing up, I cheered on Nick Price, who was from Zimbabwe, and was the world’s number one golfer for a time during the 1990s. I used to say that when I had the opportunity, I was going to play golf. I took some classes. I’m still learning, but I do my best. I find being on the golf course very relaxing, especially after a hectic day on campus. I enjoy the beautiful landscapes and the quiet and peaceful environment a golf course offers.”
Second, people might be surprised to learn that I am a scientist who really appreciates and enjoys English literature, in particular William Shakespeare’s work. I attended a rural high school in Zimbabwe, called Chitakatira High. While there, I acted in a production of William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. I played the role of Portia and represented my school in a competition with other high schools.”
I was drawn to William Shakespeare’s plays because they’re often centered on complex human emotions, which in the case of the Merchant of Venice, were related to an individual’s failure to meet prior commitments or obligations. In addressing these real-life issues in a dramatic way in his plays, Shakespeare would bring in strong characters where the injured party would bring unrealistic and excessive demands, such as Shylock demanding ‘a pound of flesh’ from Antonio as collateral. The experience of playing Portia in my teenage years opened my mind and heart to issues dealing with honesty, integrity, justice, and fairness. These are traits that I strongly believe in and have carried with me throughout my personal and professional life. They will continue to be guiding principles as I serve as the research integrity officer for Iowa State.”