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Recognizing those who serve America, and their inventive ways

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 6, 2010; B03

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.

In one example, the FDA ordered companies to stop the sale of unapproved prescription drugs that contain quinine. Since 1969, the drug has been associated with 93 deaths.

"We know we're having a real impact," she said.

-- Pius Bannis: With immigration so much in the news, Bannis shows that good people, even really good federal employees, may come from different places. The native of Dominica is a naturalized American citizen who serves his adopted country by working in Haiti with those whose lives were devastated by the earthquake in January.

Bannis is the field office director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. Since the earthquake, his workload has tripled as he works to help Haitian children, many of whom were in the process of being adopted by Americans, get to this country. For two weeks after the quake, he was the only U.S. immigration official in Haiti dealing with adoption.

He worked 20-hour days, every day, to screen cases. He set up a temporary day-care center in the embassy and provided food, water, clothes and even diapers for the children.

His Haiti posting will be over in September, but Bannis may not be ready to leave.

"I may ask for an extension, because I love it," he said.

-- Jamie Konstas: If you're a pimp or a pervert, watch out for Konstas. But you'll never see her coming. She is an FBI agent, based in the bureau's D.C. headquarters, who helped develop an innovative database that police use to catch criminals who exploit children and to rescue child victims.

The database includes information on children who are being trafficked for sex and the pimps and madams who make money off them. More than 500 pimps and predators have been successfully prosecuted with her help.

"I've used technology to bridge the gap among all of the individual law enforcement officers that are working trying to protect children," she said.

-- Till Rosenband: Rosenband, 31, shows that you don't have to be old to be accomplished. If you ask him the time, his answer won't reflect any of what he knows about that subject, unless you press him.

Rosenband, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., developed an atomic clock that is considered the world's most precise timepiece. It's so accurate, it will lose just one second in three billion years. Timex can't say that.

Although many of us may not care if our watch is off by a minute or two, atomic clocks play an unseen role in our daily lives. They help synchronize computer networks, control power grids and assist in Global Positioning System technology.

Like other finalists, Rosenband is quick to share credit with colleagues, in this case, for "this clock thing."

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