Putting the Wheels on ChE

Efficiency and love of work make ChE Business Office staff award-winners

Purdue chemical engineering is more than its students, professors, and researchers; it's also the men and women in the background who keep the school's machinery humming. For every student hunched over books and every professor starting a lecture, there are people like Cristina Farmus and her staff. Farmus was until recently the business manager and is now the administrative director for the School of Chemical Engineering. Her staff play a critical role in the school's success.

The Business Office, which recently won the inaugural College of Engineering Best Team Award, is composed of account clerks Amy Hayden and Bev Johnson, and new business manager Andrea Sills. Farmus describes her team as "beyond outstanding." The team's responsibilities include managing finances in excess of $12 million a year, which entails payroll, purchasing, research expenses, reimbursements, travel, proposal preparation, human resources, and more.

Farmus says the Business Office is the school's middle ground. "Sometimes you're pulled in different directions. On one side, business services tells you to follow the rules, and on the other side, the researcher says you have to be flexible in order to help." The staff often help faculty, students, and staff understand the business side of their grants. When they see unusual requests, it's their job to ask, "How will this benefit your research or work?"

That can be challenging. "None of us has technical expertise," Farmus says. "Many times we get so involved in details that we forget the big picture. Then, later, we read an article about a prestigious award a faculty member received or about some great research that is going to get funded. We have to step back and remind ourselves of our goal: to help the people of chemical engineering achieve their best through excellent customer service, knowledgeable solutions, and a positive attitude."

Research expenses have grown 79 percent in five years—from $4.3 million in 2002-03 to $7.7 million in 2007-08. "This growth demands a great deal of management, but the chemical engineering Business Office has handled it without an increase in staff," Farmus says. She adds that specialization and low turnover have contributed to the office's efficiency. "We know each other's backgrounds; we're a small office and we have good interaction. If Amy has a lot of work to do, Bev will step in and help her and the other way around. We do what it takes to get the job done on time."

As administrative director, Farmus handles all of the school's nonacademic issues, "so the professors can spend their time in academics, research, and strategic planning. Right now, we're focusing on marketing. We know that we're doing an excellent job in research and education, so we want the world to know how well we're doing."

Her staff say they love their work.

"I enjoy the people I work with the most," says Hayden. Johnson says she appreciates the professors and graduate students. Sills says, "Working with these people and seeing the other side of a university has been a really great experience."

With wheels like Cristina Farmus, Amy Hayden, Bev Johnson, and Andrea Sills, it's easy to see why Purdue ChE is going places.

-Joseph Fowler