Charlene Fuller was chatting amiably with the Airgas delivery man over a gas cylinder shipment when the FBI agents arrived.
She saw them approaching, their dark figures loping down the underground hallway, their reflector sunglasses glinting in the fluorescent light. Suits in the UConn Chemistry Building? Must be salesmen, she thought, and locked the stockroom door.
But they knocked, and flashed their badges. “We have a few questions for you,” one said. Wow, just like the movies, she thought. The UPS driver scurried to his truck.
She invited them into her stockroom among room-length cabinets filled with neatly arranged tinted vials, stacked boxes of chemical compounds and massive drums of reagents. They asked about a chemical that was suspected to have been used in a recently foiled terrorist bomb plot in the U.K.
Fuller ushered them to her computer and produced a report detailing the amounts, locations, and controlling personnel for that chemical at in the Department of Chemistry.
“All orders in this building are funneled through me,” she added. “Nobody can get this stuff unless they’re supposed to have it.”
The agents relaxed, nodded their approval, and began to joke around with her. No need for a follow-up visit, they finally said. They thanked her for her time. Within fifteen minutes, they were gone.
“They were really sweet,” remarks Fuller.
For her shipshape operation as manager of the CLAS Department of Chemistry stockroom, Fuller was honored last month by the National Association of Scientific Materials Managers (NAOSMM) with its highest honor: the Manager of the Year award.
Her work over the last 19 years has not only served as a model for the University, but has saved the Department on the order of a million dollars.
Acids and Basics
Fuller started her UConn career as business manager at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History to pay the bills while she worked toward her degree at Eastern Connecticut State University. She worked under director Carl Rettenmeyer, beloved professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, whose work is now the subject of an exhibit on army ants and their commensal organisms at the Biology/Physics Building.
But after Rettenmeyer’s retirement, her job was eliminated, and in the same year she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“It was a big shock,” she says. “I needed to keep busy.”
She applied for and was to work in the UConn chemistry department’s main office in 1998. On her first day, she noticed a pile of computers in boxes collecting dust. She made it her business to pull them out and get them working as the Department moved from the Waring Chemistry Building (now the Philip E. Austin Building) to the new Chemistry Building.
By 2002, when she was promoted to stockroom manager, she was cancer-free, and had “completely transformed the stockroom,” says Amy Howell, professor of chemistry and former department head, from a dysfunctional and disorganized paper-and-pencil shop to a modern, fully inventoried and organized machine.
Of Good Stock
Although most modern research stockrooms have a digital inventory system, Howell says it was Fuller’s philosophy of use that sets their Department apart. With a little training, anyone working in any of the 24 chemistry laboratories can freely search Fuller’s database for chemicals. If a compound exists in the building, it is freely shared among labs.
“The monetary savings of not having to purchase something just to try out an idea is phenomenal,” wrote Howell in her letter for the award. “Almost as important, particularly from the University standpoint, is that a tremendous waste stream is avoided.”
Fuller’s efforts save the Department up to an estimated $200,000 per year, according to Christian Brückner, professor and current head of chemistry. By some estimates, this amounts to at least a million dollars in recent memory.
Fuller’s inventory system served as a model for the University at the level of Environmental Health and Safety, which is now developing similar open-use inventory systems.
Indeed, says Eric Krantz, manager of the Chemistry Teaching Stockroom and a mentee of Fuller’s, the stockroom runs so well that when prospective faculty come to campus, Fuller and her work are used as a recruitment tool.
“They introduce me to the candidates,” Fuller says with a chuckle. “That’s always fun.”
Each semester, Fuller mentors several graduate student assistants, who she trains to help with shipping and receiving, inventory, and administrative tasks in the stockroom. Many have just arrived in the U.S. from abroad, and she often sits with them during their lunch breaks, helping them practice English.
“These students are summarily overwhelmed by the cultural experience, the class load, the anticipation of finding a research advisor, and the expectations of working in the stockroom,” notes Brückner. “It takes a particularly deft manager to hold this crew together – and Charlene is a wonderful mentor to them.”
Fuller says working with students from all over the world is one of her favorite parts of the job.
“I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up,” she says humbly. “I had certain goals, like I wanted to have a college degree, and I wanted to have a little farm. But I never really had a passion for a specific career. I really enjoy being with people who have that passion and are willing to share it.”
She’s brought in pumpkins at Halloween to teach international graduate students that American tradition, and even taken some of them kayaking.
“I learn so much from them,” she says. “I’ve never been to Egypt! I had no idea what life was like in Egypt.”
Of the award, Fuller said she had no idea her name would be called at the reception of the NAOSMM meeting in August.
“When I took this job, there wasn’t any instruction manual,” she says. “No one gave me any training. It’s really trial and error. You work really hard, and to be appreciated in this way – this award is everything.”
By: Christine Buckley, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences