The Sammies: Two at NIH who fought a fatal ‘superbug’ are Federal Employees of the Year

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of retired CIA agent Tony Mendez.

October 2, 2013

Tara Palmore and Julie Segre made groundbreaking use of DNA sequencing techniques to end the 2011 outbreak of a hospital-acquired “superbug” that killed seven patients and sickened many others at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center.

The two high-level NIH employees, one an epidemiologist and the other a genome researcher, used the Klebsiella pneumoniae bacterium’s DNA to map its path through the hospital and help stop its spread.

Segre and Palmore said for a Washington Post profile in July that neither of them could have solved the puzzle alone. “We’re both old enough that people trust us, but not so old that they say . . . ‘You can’t try something that’s never been tried,’ ” Segre said.

On Thursday, the Partnership for Public Service will recognize Segre and Palmore as the Federal Employees of the Year during an awards ceremony in Washington.

The award is one of nine Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, more popularly known as “Sammies,” that the nonprofit will hand out. The laurels, considered among the most prestigious for U.S. civil servants, have taken on added meaning in light of the government shutdown that began this week.

“There’s no more important time to highlight the great things civil servants are doing,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. “These people are making a massive difference for the public, and they’re what government should be celebrated for. This should be a clarion call for stopping this insanity.”

The shutdown has put more than 800,000 federal workers — including four of the award recipients — on leave from their jobs until Congress and the White House agree to a new plan for funding the government. The furloughed honorees are Orice Williams Brown, a Government Accountability Office managing director; Kevin Geiss, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for energy; David Lavery, a NASA program manager; and Dan Madrzykowski, and engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy for me,” Brown said. “On the one hand, it’s recognition for over 20 years of service. On the other hand, it’s not being able to do what I love to do for the American people.”

The partnership on Thursday will recognize Brown with the Career Achievement Medal for examining initiatives the government launched after the 2008 economic crisis, such as the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul and programs to prevent housing foreclosures.

Geiss will receive the Management Excellence Medal for encouraging the use of alternative fuels for the Air Force’s combat and support missions, Lavery and his NASA lab team will pick up the Science and Environment Medal for the development and launch of the Mars rover Curiosity, and Madrzykowski will receive the Citizen Services Medal for research that led to innovative firefighting techniques that have been adopted across the nation.

Among the non-furloughed honorees is John MacKinnon, an investigations supervisor with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. He and his team will receive the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal for their work arresting 54 alleged child-pornography predators and rescuing more than 167 victims.

“The satisfaction of taking out the worst criminals — the top-tier producers of child pornography — it drives us,” MacKinnon said. “It’s truly a relentless pursuit.”

Retired CIA agent Tony Mendez, whose career was immortalized with the Oscar-winning 2012 movie “Argo,” will receive the Honorary Service to America Medal for orchestrating an elaborate operation to rescue six U.S. diplomats during the 1980 hostage crisis in Iran.

The International Affairs Medal will go to Hamid Jafari, a medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who oversaw the delivery of 1 billion doses of polio vaccine to 172 million children in India between 2009 and 2011.

State Department youth-engagement adviser Andrew Rabens will receive the Call to Service Medal for organizing a conference that brought together aspiring young leaders from Middle East countries to share ideas and learn about American democracy.

This year’s winners came from a pool of more than 300 nominees tapped for consideration by their colleagues. A 15-member committee of government, academic, private-sector, media and philanthropic leaders voted on the award recipients.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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