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Steven Rosenberg
Credit: R.Baer / National Cancer Institute / Wikimedia Commons

Uncle Sam may want you

More than 4 million people work for the U.S. federal government. Each year, a handful of them win highly competitive prizes for outstanding accomplishment, informally known as “Sammies.” “[A]mong the most prestigious awards for U.S. civil servants,” according to The Washington Post, this year’s Sammies were presented to nine winners at a black-tie gala in Washington, D.C., on 7 October. The winners and the 21 additional finalists were chosen from more than 400 nominees from throughout the government and across the nation. As in most years, a high percentage of the winners and finalists have scientific backgrounds, highlighting the wide range of science-based opportunities in federal service.

Though the Sammies may seem to be named for Uncle Sam, the honorees’ putative employer, they are officially known as the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, commemorating the founder of the Partnership for Public Service, the private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that presents the prizes. The medals and accompanying cash awards aim to extol “excellence in our federal workforce and inspire other talented and dedicated individuals to go into public service,” according to the program’s website

Federal employment provides these and many other scientifically trained individuals the scope to exercise their abilities and expertise in service to the nation.

The top prize, Federal Employee of the Year, went to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute (NCI) physician and biophysics Ph.D. Steven A. Rosenberg. The People’s Choice Award, which is chosen through an online popular vote open to anyone who visits the prize program’s website, also honors cancer research, through medals for the Cancer Genome Atlas team and its leaders, NCI geneticist Jean C. Zenklusen and National Human Genome Research Institute biostatistician and epidemiologist Carolyn Hutter. A selection committee chooses all the other winners.

Major criteria for that committee’s decisions, according to the prize program’s website, include “[t]he significance and impact” of the contestants’ work. These qualities can also be an important part of the job satisfaction of government work, says Science and Environment Medal winner Jacob Moss of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. “The thing that draws me to the federal service is the scale of the impact that you can have, [given] the resources of the federal government [and] the scale of the operations, overseas [and] domestically,” Moss says in a video on the program website. “If you can tap those resources and you can find the vein in the policy world to do something innovative, … then there’s really no limit to what you can accomplish.”

Wide-ranging accomplishments

Besides cancer, this year’s scientifically trained medalists are seeking solutions to challenges including increasing the nation’s cybersecurity; reducing antibiotic use in the poultry industry; helping families in developing countries replace dangerous, polluting cook stoves with safe, efficient ones; and preparing communities for earthquakes. Scientifically trained finalists have been busy developing the first effective drug for sickle cell disease, pioneering research on ocean acidification, safely destroying chemical weapons, creating devices to locate living disaster victims, improving toxicity testing for household and industrial chemicals, raising airplane passengers’ chances of surviving onboard fires, and building a system to warn people of hurricanes and floods, among other endeavors. Overall, the academic histories of the winners and finalists include degrees in seismology, engineering physics, computer science, immunology, oceanography, meteorology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, biology, physics, and embryology.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

Rosenberg, the Federal Employee of the Year award winner and an internationally recognized innovator in cancer immunotherapy, has conducted research at NCI for 40 years. When he arrived at the institute after his surgical residency, “there was no understanding of the immune response to human cancer,” he says in a video on the prize program’s website. Now, he says, immune-based therapies developed at NCI can eliminate metastatic melanoma in about 20 to 25% of patients.

On his first day on the job, he continues, his wife gave him a statue of Sisyphus “trying to push an enormous rock … up a hill.” This “metaphor for … my life every day here at work” still sits on his desk as a reminder of the “extraordinarily difficult problems” his team continues to tackle.

Zenklusen and Hutter’s work on the Cancer Genome Atlas is meanwhile helping researchers understand cancers that occur at nearly three dozen sites throughout the body, including the breasts, lungs, stomach, skin, bladder, colon, liver, kidneys, cervix, and prostate. The atlas “has changed the way we classify and treat tumors and how we develop medicines in the future,” says Harold Varmus, former NCI director, as quoted on the award program’s website. “There’s not a person working on cancer research at the basic genetic level who’s not using The Cancer Genome Atlas every day.”

Immunologist Hyun Soon Lillehoj, winner of the Career Achievement Medal and a senior research molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, like Rosenberg, studies the immune system to advance human health. She works on an entirely different species, however, helping to reduce the use of antibiotics in commercially raised chickens in order to lessen the development of drug-resistant infectious strains of bacteria and protect the efficacy of existing antibiotics. “Our goal at USDA is to grow [chickens] healthier because we are growing them as a food source for [the] public. … My role [is] … to learn about [their] immune system to strengthen their innate immune system so we reduce the disease losses,” she says in a video on the prize website. Fascinated by science from early childhood, she came to the United States from her native South Korea to attend college.

Beyond the bench and bedside

The impact of government scientists in advancing human welfare extends far beyond the lab and clinic, according to Citizen Services Medal winner and seismologist Lucile Jones, who is science adviser for risk reduction at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, California. “My job is to make sure the policymaker really understands the implications of their decisions,” she says in a video on the prize website. She worked on “a model of what the big San Andreas earthquake would be like” for the people of California, and for important aspects of their infrastructure, such as water supply and fire risk. Her model inspired modifications to buildings and electrical and water systems.

Beyond that, she continues, “we came up with the idea of creating a public drill. … We took the science, which is all an analytical process, and turned it into a story so that it could connect with people,” telling them what they could expect from 10 minutes before to 6 months after the earthquake hit. Millions in California and elsewhere participate in annual drills based on this work. (They took place on 15 October this year.) “This isn’t just about scaring people,” she says. “It’s about showing us that there are solutions that will protect the economy of the United States. … The earthquake is inevitable, but the disaster is not, and it really is our choice.”

Averting another kind of disaster is the concern of computer scientist Ron Ross of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who won the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal for developing a framework to assess how government agencies should protect their computer systems from the constant threat of attack. “The adversaries are working against us 24/7,” he says in a video on the award website. “This is the challenge of the 21st century.”

Moss, the Science and Environment Medal awardee, also pursues a major policy goal: reducing pollution and carbon emissions. “Forty percent of the world is cooking with solid fuels on open fires,” says Moss, who holds degrees in engineering physics and science, technology and environmental policy, in a video on the website. Because of the pollution created, “the exposures that people suffer from cooking over open fires with traditional stoves using solid fuels such as wood, coal, charcoal, crop residues, dung … lead to an estimated 4.3 million deaths per year.”

By helping create the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an international effort by public and private entities to bring clean, efficient, and affordable cookstoves to people in many developing countries, Moss is working to decrease a major health risk for women and girls worldwide, and a significant source of carbon emission and other pollutants. “Twenty million families have purchased a stove … [and the alliance is] on track to meet their goal of bringing 100 million homes by 2020 to adopting clean cooking practices,” he adds. The alliance projects that reaching this goal will save 470,000 lives, eliminate 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and create 1.5 million jobs.

Federal employment provides these and many other scientifically trained individuals the scope to exercise their abilities and expertise in service to the nation. “Some of the things … we think are impossible to solve today, [but] we’ll look back with great satisfaction and say, ‘Job well done,’” Ross says. For Lillehoj, who has attained eight patents and 300 scientific publications, joining the USDA in 1984, after a postdoc at NIH, has been simply “the best decision I made.”