One is leading the effort to reduce tobacco-related disease by regulating what goes into cigarettes. Another helped disrupt drug traffickers from laundering billions of dollars through Mexican banks. Another developed a strategy to make sure every American has access to high-speed Internet service.

These are among 34 federal workers nominated for the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal awards. The service medals — or “Sammies,” as they are known — are the Academy Awards of the federal world, and honor distinguished public servants in fields ranging from transportation safety to data systems. With civil servants a key focal point in the debate over the size of government, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service hopes its annual Service to America medals will serve as a reminder of federal workers’ commitment to their jobs.

Nine employees will receive awards this fall for their work on a range of issues, both in the headlines and under the radar. One among them will be honored as federal employee of the year.

The 34 finalists, selected from more than 400 nominations by their bosses and colleagues, will be honored Thursday at a breakfast on Capitol Hill as part of Public Service Recognition Week, May 1-7, intended to recognize the efforts of federal, state and local government workers.

The nominees hail from Menlo Park, Calif., to White River Junction, Vt., with 23 working in the Washington area. Some are approaching the end of a long career in government, while others are in their 20s.

The Washington Post chose a random sample of finalists to ask about their work:

• When the Food and Drug Administration gained new authority over tobacco products in 2009, it turned to doctor and public health expert Lawrence Deyton to launch the Center for Tobacco Products . Deyton’s 30-year career in government has focused on fighting hepatitis, AIDS among veterans and other public health threats.

With a $450 million budget,Deyton, 58, led a successful effort to prohibit tobacco manufacturers from displaying the labels “light,” “low” and “mild.” In June the center will issue regulations requiring graphic new health warnings on cigarette packages and billboards. Next up: Establishing which ingredients in cigarettes could be removed or changed to make them safer.

“We have a fundamental authority now that no other country has,” Deyton said.

• The Defense Department’s inspector general has long had a system for protecting service members who report wrongdoing. But until Dan Meyer and his team were hired in 2004, civilian whistleblowers who suffered from retaliation had no advocate.

Meyer, 46, created a program that protects employees who report national security and procurement fraud. These whistleblowers often lose their security clearances as punishment. Meyer once blew the whistle himself when he was a Navy line officer who disclosed flaws in the investigation of a 1989 explosion that killed 47 American sailors.

“We needed to approach this as protection of our sources,” he said.

• When the Environmental Protection Agency came out late last year with a new plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay, 31-year-old Katherine Antos cajoled sometime-warring state governments, advocacy groups and industry to cooperate to increase their accountability. “If we are going to be successful, we needed the right buy-in,” said Antos, leader of the bay program’s Water Quality Team. The biggest problem was conveying what might seem simple: “What needs to be done, who is going to do it and how,” she said.

• Three years ago the National Institutes of Health attempted to pick up where the country’s prestigious medical centers had left off, cracking the code of diseases that cannot be diagnosed.

William Gahl, a pediatrician specializing in clinical and biochemical genetics, took on the challenge as the first director of the Undiagnosed Diseases Program. Interest was so strong that Gahl’s $280,000 budget quickly grew to $3.5 million. Of 5,000 applicants, 400 have been accepted, though a medical diagnosis has been found for just 60 so far.

“We admit failure in the majority of our cases,” Gahl said. “But these are people who have been everywhere else.”

• Analysts at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network have long suspected that Mexican drug traffickers were smuggling cash from their narcotics sales back into Mexico for deposit in local banks. Senior Intelligence Research Analyst Ann Martin, 29, analyzed tens of thousands of bank transactions and discovered last year that billions of dollars in illegal drug profits were entering the Mexican banking system from the United States, only to be spent on more drug sales in this country.

Her work led the Mexican government to issue new regulations capping the American dollars that can flow to Mexican banks.

• Post-traumatic stress disorder is a well-known mental health issue facing servicemembers, but when Matthew Friedman began his career working with veterans 40 years ago, the term did not exist.

Today, the psychiatrist and pharmacologist is executive director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Center for PTSD, based in White River Junction, Vt. Since the center was created in 1989, Friedman has expanded it to seven VA medical centers across the country. He overcame many skeptics along the way, who believed the affliction was not a serious disorder. At 71, Friedman now wants to understand how to prevent the disorder and why some soldiers suffer from it while others don’t.

“What is the difference between resilient and vulnerable people?” he asked.

The Washington Post has a content-sharing agreement with the Partnership for Public Service. Go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage to see the full list of finalists.