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Recognizing those who serve America, and their inventive ways

Federal workers Pius Bannis, left, Rafat R. Ansari and Deborah Autor were among the 32 Service to America Medals finalists honored in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. The awards are sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Federal workers Pius Bannis, left, Rafat R. Ansari and Deborah Autor were among the 32 Service to America Medals finalists honored in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. The awards are sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Many famous federal dramas have used Room 325 in the Russell Senate Office Building as a stage. John and Robert Kennedy announced their plans to run for president in what was then called the Senate Caucus Room. The disgrace of Watergate was on display when the Senate held hearings there. And Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination hearing, which he called "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," was in that room.

The space, with its 35-foot-high ceiling and grand French windows, is now called the Kennedy Caucus Room in honor of brothers John, Robert and Edward. It was a stage again Wednesday, but the show wasn't as dramatic and the actors weren't as famous.

Yet the 32 federal employees who were honored in the room as finalists for the 2010 Service to America Medals represent the best in the federal service. They are regular people who do extraordinary things every day, as do other ordinary federal workers.

The awards, often called Sammies, are sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that focuses on issues affecting the federal workforce. Acknowledging the finalists was part of Public Service Recognition Week. And this celebration is a needed relief after what has been a stream of implied criticisms about federal pay and, much more seriously, a series of violent attacks this year on federal employees.

"By and large, government has been playing defense, and it needs to play offense," said Max Stier, the partnership's president. "It needs to really share the amazing stories of achievement that government is producing with the American people."

As Stier briefly listed the 32 finalists' achievements, at a breakfast banquet early enough for them to get back to work, it became clear that innovation was the thread that links them. The image of a stodgy, slow-moving government, though too often true, is shattered by the inventive approach to problem solving that the finalists demonstrated.

There are too many of them to profile in this space, so here are a few of their stories:

-- Rafat R. Ansari: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that cataracts impair vision. But Ansari is one scientist whose work with astronauts is leading to better treatment for a common ailment on Earth.

As a NASA physicist, Ansari uses a low-power laser device to examine the long-term effects of space travel on the vision of astronauts at the agency's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "Space travel accelerates the aging process in the body," he explained. And cataracts are common among older earthlings.

Ansari's device is a pioneering instrument that could advance the early detection of cataracts and prevent vision loss.

-- Deborah Autor: Many Americans probably assume that prescription medicines are safe and have won federal approval. That's largely true, but in too many instances, it was not the case -- at least not until Autor and her colleagues at the Food and Drug Administration started taking action.

Autor, a lawyer who directs the Office of Compliance in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in White Oak, designed a program that has identified more than 500 unapproved drugs that were on the market. She is credited with initiating an aggressive enforcement effort, along with education and outreach programs, designed to remove potentially dangerous drugs that had been on the market, in some cases for decades.


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