A soldier stands guard next to over 2 million seized US dollars during a presentation to the press in Tijuana, Mexico. (Guillermo Arias/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In 2010, Ann Martin, a senior intelligence research analyst at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, began to study tens of thousands of banking transactions between the United States and Mexico—and uncovered money laundering schemes worth billions of dollars.

At the time, Martin was 28 years old. This was her second job out of college.

“We actually found that significant amounts of U.S. dollar cash that was flowing through this system couldn’t be well explained by legitimate economic factors,” Martin said.

As a result of Martin’s report, which she co-authored with colleagues from Mexico, the Mexican government will create new restrictions to cap deposits of U.S. currency in Mexican banks.

In honor of her work, Martin, who is now 30, received the Call to Service Award at Thursday’s 10th-annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals gala, hosted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The event, designed to recognize outstanding achievements in federal government, paid tribute to Martin along with eight other federal employees.

“They are people who aren’t scared to take a step out of the normal path,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership. “They are innovators that look around and say, ‘Let’s make it better.’”

While most of the awards recognize long-term accomplishments, the Call to Service medal goes to a federal employee who is under the age of 35 and has been in government service for less than 5 years. It reflects a generational change in government, Stier said.

According to a 2010 Current Population Survey, workers younger than 35 years account for less than 20 percent of the public sector workforce. Meanwhile, people older than 55 years make up more than 25 percent of all public employees.

However, according to Stier, the age distribution is shifting. As the older cohort begins to retire and move on, the government will recruit younger workers who are highly service motivated and want to apply their talents.

“We often see people, like Ann Martin, really achieving at tender ages without much time in government,” he said. “The Ann Martins of the world are very powerful role models.”

Martin said she first considered a career at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network because she felt passionate about its mission.

“For me it’s been a great experience, feeling like the work that you’re doing is contributing to the greater good,” she said. “It allowed for creativity, and that made me feel more empowered.”

Yet her youth also presented some obstacles to accomplishing her research, according to Martin. She worked particularly hard to become an expert in her field, so that law enforcement officials as well as her supervisors could feel confident coming to her for information.

Despite her age, Martin’s success in studying transactions within Mexican banks allowed her to take on a more significant leadership role in solving the broader problem. The Mexican government will now introduce new banking restrictions designed to interrupt the flow of illegal money that has plagued the country—and the United States—since the late 1990s, when the drug trade declined in Colombia and smugglers rerouted their supplies and money through Mexico.

“[What Ann Martin accomplished] is very disruptive to the drug trade and crime that’s going on in Mexico,” Stier said. “It was a very powerful example of how applied smarts make a very big difference.”

The Service to America medals are presented annually to government employees whose work improves public well-being. Other 2011 award winners included Alfonso Batres (Career Achievement Medal), Diane Braunstein (Citizen Services Medal), C. Norman Coleman (Homeland Security Medal), James Michael Dunn and team (National Security and International Affairs Medal), William A. Gahl (Science and Environment Medal), W. Todd Grams (Management Excellence Medal), Charles Heurich and the NamUs Team (Justice and Enforcement Medal), and Paul Hsieh (Federal Employee of the Year).

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