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NIH innovators who helped develop coronavirus vaccines get top prizes at the Sammies awards for federal workers

Kizzmekia Corbett, above, is being named the 2021 Federal Employee of the Year along with her colleague Barney Graham, both of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. Corbett and Graham conducted research that led to the development of vaccines for the coronavirus. (Photo by Marlayna Demond for UMBC)
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With the coronavirus in retreat, even vaccine naysayers should thank big government.

Those who are immunized make life safer for the refuseniks, even if they show no appreciation.

So, it’s good that two people who were instrumental in combating covid-19 will get major love when they are named Federal Employees of the Year on Thursday evening.

Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett, who the Partnership for Public Service says helped develop the “basic structure” of the coronavirus vaccines with their work at the National Institutes of Health, will be honored with that title during the annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, better known as the Sammies. More than a dozen people from various federal agencies will be feted at the star-studded Kennedy Center program, which bills itself as the Oscars of government service.

Barney Graham laid the groundwork for the world to battle this pandemic, and the scientists he mentored will equip us for the next one

For all its 20 years, the Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes good government, has sponsored the Sammies to “share the amazing stories of public servants with the public,” said Max Stier, who has led the organization the entire time. Now the sharing includes airing the ceremony on Bloomberg Television, Axios and PBS World, in addition to the organization’s social media pages.

“We really have to invest in our government,” Stier said by phone, “to have a vibrant democracy. That just doesn’t come without a cost. … If we don’t take care of the people taking care of us, we will not have those people forever.”

President Biden understands that. For the first time, a sitting president will celebrate the honorees at the event, albeit with a video message. Other celebrities with video remarks include actors Audra McDonald and Rose Byrne. High-profile government figures like Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, and Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, will participate in person.

Fauci’s description of the collaboration between Corbett and Graham sounds like a Hollywood script.

“They are really an extraordinary combination,” he said. “The older-man mentor who has decades of experience in science and the young, brilliant mentee or student who ultimately partners with her mentor to do something that is most extraordinary.”

The two led the NIH investigation that resulted — with amazing speed — in vaccines that have saved many lives.

Corbett, 35, now at Harvard University, was a teenager when she began working as an intern with Graham, 68, a vaccine pioneer, recalled Fauci in an interview. Before Graham retired from NIH, the physician and Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology was deputy director of the agency’s Vaccine Research Center. After the internship, Corbett earned her doctorate in microbiology and immunology, then returned to NIH to work with her mentor, said Fauci, who was last year’s federal employee of the year. He will join Zients to present the award to his former NIH colleagues.

“I’m a big fan of the Sammies,” Zients said by phone, as a reminder of the “extraordinary” work of federal employees. He praised Corbett and Graham for “their literally lifesaving contributions.”

Their work proves “public service is an honorable calling and that you can make a huge difference,” Zients said, emphasizing “huge.”

That applies to all the award winners. The other honorees cited by the Partnership are:

  • Gary Gibbons and Eliseo Pérez-Stable, who both work for the NIH, were awarded the Covid-19 Response Medal. The medal was created this year to recognize feds who played outstanding roles in fighting the pandemic. Gibbons and Pérez-Stable pushed for greater diversity in clinical vaccine trials. Following their recommendation, according to the Partnership, Moderna paused its normal recruiting efforts for clinical trial participants and targeted Black and Hispanic communities, resulting in expanded inclusion.
  • Evan Kwerel, a Federal Communications Commission economist, was awarded the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement Medal. The Partnership called Kwerel “a key driver of America’s wireless revolution, establishing the first-ever competitive auctions to allocate public airwaves” for transmitting sound, data and video. The auctions raised over $200 billion for the government.
  • Callie Higgins, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was awarded the Emerging Leaders Medal. Along with her colleagues, she helped invent breakthrough technology to fix flaws in 3-D-printed products, including those in the fields of medicine and plastics.
  • Michelle Daniels, Charles Eldridge, Ryan Jones and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Foster Youth to Independence team were awarded the Management Excellence Medal. They developed a program that provides rental and other assistance to young adults who have aged out of foster care.
  • Reem Ghandour, of the Health Resources and Services Administration, was awarded the Science and Environment Award. She revitalized and transformed a national survey that now helps determine if children are ready for kindergarten.
  • Ana Hinojosa and Eric Choy of Customs and Border Protection were awarded the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal. The pair “dramatically stepped up enforcement and curtailed goods made by forced labor,” the Partnership said. They issued about 30 orders blocking goods from China from the time a new law was signed in 2016 through January this year. Only 33 similar orders had been issued during the previous 80 years.

These annual awards demonstrate the incredible but often unrecognized or underappreciated work of public servants. It’s a demonstration that’s too infrequent, because there really isn’t a culture of recognition in the federal government,” Stier said. Agencies have awards programs, “but by and large, there’s not really a focus on the good in government. And you have intense focus on mistakes and problems.”

Although many engage with government around their policy preferences, Stier lamented that “almost no one pays any attention to the health of the institutions that are fundamental to making those policies real.”

The Sammies pay attention.

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