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Service to America Medal Finalists: The Top Public Servants in the Sciences

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Federal civil servants throughout the government are continually making important scientific breakthroughs and working to improve the quality of our environment.

On October 3, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service will present the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Science and Environment to one of the five finalists who have excelled in these fields. The finalists profiled below helped develop a new coronary stent, advanced drug addiction science, curbed greenhouse gas emissions at federal facilities, used genomics to radically transform the way hospital-acquired infections are identified and halted, and led NASA’s landing of a space vehicle on Mars.

These public servants are among 31 finalists honored in seven categories ranging from citizen services to homeland security and law enforcement. Here are the stories of the Service to America Medal finalists for the science and environment category.

Julie Segre, Tara Palmore and team: NIH team used genomics to track and halt deadly hospital-acquired infections

During a nerve-racking 12-month period in 2011 and 2012, a rare, deadly strain of bacteria that was resistant to nearly all antibiotics was spreading through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, the nation’s premier research hospital.

Every effort to halt the outbreak was failing until a team of biomedical detectives led by Drs. Julie Segre and Tara Palmore at the NIH used a revolutionary new technology to track and contain the infection.

In the end, 18 seriously ill patients acquired the bacteria and seven died from the infection—a tragedy for the patients, their families and the NIH. But the frightening episode prompted the NIH to sequence the bacteria’s DNA to decipher how the pathogen spread from patient to patient, which then allowed the doctors to detect the origins of the infections, trace the transmission path and implement robust measures to put an end to the outbreak.

This use of genomics could radically transform the way hospital-acquired infections are identified and halted, leading to quicker response times and saving tens of thousands of lives. There are nearly 100,000 deaths a year in the U.S. attributed to these infections.

“It is a groundbreaking advance in one hospital that will now have an impact across the world and will become the standard,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH.

Dave Lavery and the Mars Science Laboratory team: Leading NASA’s exploration of the Red Planet 

In August 2012, members of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team endured an excruciating 14-minute wait for signals to arrive from Mars to learn if the rover Curiosity had survived its landing on the Red Planet.

After its entry, descent and perfect landing, the rover Curiosity settled in the Martian soil 154 million miles from Earth and began looking for signs of habitable environments, studying the planet’s climate and geology and helping NASA assess the potential of a future human mission.

The historic mission, which will rewrite the textbooks on the geology of Mars and shed light on the possibility of life-supporting environments there, was the culmination of more than a decade of perseverance, engineering breakthroughs and scientific innovations. The NASA team leader for this mission is Dave Lavery, who has brought to the project strong management skills, state-of-the-art-engineering knowledge, a deep technical understanding of the rover’s landing requirements and a vision of what could be accomplished.

The Curiosity rover already has used its cameras and drilling capability to locate evidence of water-bearing and clay minerals inside a drilled rock. Analysis of powder from a drilled mudstone rock indicates past environmental conditions that were favorable for microbial life. An analysis of the surface dust on Mars also points to volcanic origins.

Paul D. Jablonski: DOE metallurgist developed revolutionary coronary stent 

The tiny scaffolding had to be strong, long-lasting and visible to an X-ray. It had to be able to hold open a human artery for extended periods of time to keep blood flowing. It had to be able to keep people alive.

That was the task put before Paul Jablonski, a metallurgist in the Process Development Division of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Albany, Ore.

Jablonski is a metal specialist, a scientist whose passion is creating new alloys with just the right properties to perform specific tasks. In the case of the scaffolding used as a stent to keep blood flowing through human arteries, the stakes could hardly be higher. When the project was completed, Jablonski was credited with transforming the world of coronary stents, greatly enhancing their safety and reliability by making them visible to X-ray machines.

“Paul almost singlehandedly revolutionized coronary stent technology,” said Paul King, NETL’s director of business development. “Since its introduction in 2010, the platinum-chromium stent series has become the leading stent platform in the world, with more than $4 billion in sales and a 45 percent market share in the United States and a 33 percent global market share.”

Nora D. Volkow: NIH scientist demonstrates drug addiction is a disease

Dr. Nora Volkow conducted groundbreaking research that has moved drug addiction science into mainstream medicine, demonstrating that addiction alters brain function and is a disease, not simply the result of poor judgment or personal weaknesses.

As director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for the past decade, Volkow has used findings from cutting-edge research to promote the study and development of more effective intervention strategies to prevent and treat drug abuse and addiction. She has made significant strides to curb the intertwined epidemic of HIV/AIDS and drug addiction, worked to stem the high rates of prescription opioid abuse and explored innovative medication strategies to treat drug abuse and addiction.

“She’s taken the National Institute on Drug Abuse and made it a neuroscience institute,” said Dr. Larry Tabak, principal deputy director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “She was an early proponent of the concept that addiction is a disease of the brain. This has had profound implications for our ability to identify people who are most at risk and develop evidence based interventions that work.”

Josh Silverman: Curbed greenhouse gas emissions at DOE facilities

While the Department of Energy (DOE) has long been committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, Josh Silverman discovered that many of the department’s facilities were unknowingly emitting a very powerful pollutant.

Silverman, the DOE’s director of sustainability support, examined the operations at the department’s national laboratories, production facilities and power administrations and found that little attention was being paid to the unintended releases of sulfur hexafluoride, the world’s most potent greenhouse gas.

Leading a departmental working group, Silverman identified huge gaps in air pollution controls at DOE facilities and initiated steps to prevent the discharge of these emissions. This included conducting maintenance and repairs to reduce leaks, and deploying technologies to capture and reuse these gases. The impact has been significant. DOE officials said they have halted the release of about one million metric tons of greenhouse gas since 2009, the equivalent of eliminating polluting emissions from 200,000 passenger vehicles every year.

“Josh Silverman launched DOE's first-ever inventory of sulfur hexafluoride emissions, quantifying an alarmingly large and previously unknown rate,” said Andrew Lawrence, director of the DOE’s Office of Environmental Protection and Safety Analysis.

Lara Shane is Vice President of Research and Communications at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. This article is the fifth in a series on the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies) finalists. For information about the awards and how to nominate a federal employee for a medal, go to servicetoamericamedals.org. The 2013 Sammies program is supported by national sponsors Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Chevron, ConantLeadership and United Technologies Corporation. 

Image via isak55/Shutterstock.com

Lara Shane is Vice President for Research and Communications at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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