President Joe Biden applauded the Partnership for Public Service’s 2021 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals finalists May 5 as a reminder of the important work that federal employees do to serve the American public.

“This is the 20th anniversary of the Sammies. These awards aren’t just the Oscars of public service, they’re a reminder that public service is noble, an impactful profession,” said Biden at a May 5 event honoring the 2021 finalists.

“And I hope that they will encourage more young people to consider careers in public service. When you hear the stories and achievements of these honorees, you’ll know why we should be so proud of this country. We’re made of fellow Americans who do extraordinary things.”

This isn’t the first time that Biden has shown public support for the awards as a way to increase visibility for public service. He also gave remarks for the 2016 Sammies when he was vice president under the Obama administration, lamenting the fact that the American people didn’t know the full depth of the work that public servants do for them each day.

In total, the Sammies chose 29 individuals and teams to honor as finalists for the 2021 awards, with the addition of a new COVID-19 Response category to honor feds that conducted critical work in the face of a global pandemic.

“Federal employees are there on the front lines, and this year that was especially true,” said Adrienne Warren, a Tony-nominated actress who hosted the event.

The Partnership for Public Service selected five feds as finalists for the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement award, which honors employees that have demonstrated sustained achievement in a federal career spanning at least 20 years:

  • C. Mark Eakin at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Led development of a satellite-based monitoring system that provides accurate forecasts and early warnings to environmental officials worldwide at a time when rising ocean temperatures threaten the health of coral reefs.
  • Paul Friday at the Census Bureau — During six decades of federal service, invented, engineered and implemented systems that enabled the Census Bureau to more accurately tabulate and analyze data on paper census forms, speeding the process and saving millions of dollars.
  • Evan R. Kwerel at the Federal Communications Commission — Pioneered the use of competitive spectrum auctions to allocate the public airwaves for sound, data and video transmissions, helping fuel the digital revolution while adding more than $200 billion to the government’s coffers.
  • Gregory M. Ruiz at the Smithsonian Institution — Played a major role over three decades highlighting the environmental harm caused by the marine transport of invasive species, resulting in a federal reporting system, enforcement policies and improved shipboard management practices.
  • Anne Schuchat at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — As one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, has led numerous high-profile and consequential disease outbreak investigations to protect public health and save countless lives.

Four teams and one individual were selected as finalists for the new COVID-19 Response award:

  • Ian Brownlee and the Interagency COVID Repatriation team at the Department of State — Created and managed a State Department-led task force that repatriated more than 100,000 Americans who were stranded in countries all over the world when borders were closed and airports shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Virginia K. Busby, Dianne Garibotto, Camille Privett and the Economic Impact Payment team at the IRS — Orchestrated the disbursement of hundreds of billions of dollars to tens of millions of people adversely affected by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Kizzmekia S. Corbett and Barney S. Graham at the National Institutes of Health — Conducted groundbreaking research that led to the development of highly effective vaccines in record time that are protecting hundreds of millions of people from contracting the deadly coronavirus that swept across the globe in 2020 and 2021.
  • Gary H. Gibbons, M.D., and Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable at NIH — Developed and implemented federal programs to increase testing as well as participation in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine trials in underserved communities across the country.
  • Peter Marks at the Food and Drug Administration — Laid the groundwork for strict scientific regulatory standards used for the rapid development, testing and approval of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines amid a deadly, once-in-a-century pandemic.

Four individuals were selected for the Emerging Leaders award finalists, which honors feds under 35 that have made distinguishing contributions early in their careers:

  • William Hart-Cooper at the Department of Agriculture — Created novel formulations for disinfectants and packaging that break down into harmless substances after use, protecting human health and reducing environmental pollution.
  • Callie I. Higgins at the National Institute of Standards and Technology — Invented a groundbreaking technology to detect and remedy microscopic flaws that threaten the safety and reliability of 3D-printed products, potentially revolutionizing the medical, plastics, coatings, optics and additive manufacturing fields.
  • Edward Sisco at NIST — Devised a new method for crime laboratories to identify opioids and other drugs more quickly and safely, providing critical information to law enforcement while protecting lab employees from dangerous substances.
  • Lori Vislocky at the Department of Homeland Security — Developed and implemented a new system that enables authorities to quickly identify foreigners who pose a threat to national security or public safety before they travel to the United States.

Four individuals and one team were selected as finalists for the Management Excellence award, which recognizes significant accomplishment in efficient, effective and results-oriented government:

  • Michelle Daniels, Charles D. Eldridge, Ryan E. Jones and the Foster Youth to Independence team at the Department of Housing and Urban Development — Created an innovative program offering housing assistance and social services to young people aging out of foster care to prevent them from becoming homeless and to provide an opportunity for self-sufficiency.
  • Mary Frances Matthews at the Department of Veterans Affairs — Reduced the lengthy backlog of disability appeals for veterans by 87% in two years, providing long-awaited decisions on benefits to thousands of individuals.
  • Mary D. Gibert at the General Services Administration — Successfully coordinated the federal assistance effort for the 2020-21 presidential transition in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a disputed election.
  • Stephen G. Jurczyk at NASA — Oversaw the landing of a rover on Mars, two successful U.S. astronaut flights to the International Space Station and the planning to put the first woman and first person of color on the moon while leading NASA through the pandemic.
  • Gary Washington at the Department of Agriculture — Led a technology transformation at the Department of Agriculture, dramatically increasing efficiency, productivity and security, and improving service to the public.

Three teams and two individuals were chosen as finalists for the Safety, Security and International Affairs award, which recognizes excellence in in fields such as counterterrorism, civil rights, defense and military affairs, diplomacy, foreign assistance, trade, consumer protection, cybersecurity and emergency preparedness and response:

  • Ana B. Hinojosa, Eric Choy and team at U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Directed enforcement actions against companies seeking to import goods produced by forced labor in China and other countries, as part of a broader human rights effort to curb modern-day slavery.
  • Kenneth Graham at NOAA — Coordinated the national response to the most active hurricane season on record during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a 100 percent evacuation rate in the hardest-hit area during Hurricane Laura, the strongest U.S. landfall in 2020 season.
  • Adam Jacoff and the Emergency Response Robotics team at NIST — Developed sophisticated testing standards to ensure ground, underwater and aerial robots have the capability to help emergency responders and the military handle disasters and other dangerous situations.
  • Chong Le at the Department of the Air Force — Oversaw the development of a $1 billion Air Force satellite system that will enable prediction of major weather events and natural disasters, providing military leaders and civilian authorities with information needed to make crucial, life-saving decisions.
  • Zack Schwartz and the Census Bureau Trust & Safety team — Led the first-of-its-kind government team that worked with technology companies to combat misinformation and disinformation that threatened the integrity of the 2020 census.

And three individuals and two teams were chosen as finalists for the Science and Environment award, which honors excellence in fields such as medicine, economics, energy, information technology, space, meteorology and resource conservation:

  • Jay Barlow at NOAA — Played an influential national role in monitoring and managing marine mammals by creating new survey methods and technology to protect and save the lives of whales, dolphins and other species.
  • David L. Boucher, John Lee, Daniel Wolfe and the Ebola Medical Countermeasures Task Force at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — Oversaw the research and development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tests that have been used to halt the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa and avert the possibility of a pandemic.
  • Reem M. Ghandour at the Health Resources and Services Administration — Transformed and revitalized a national survey on children’s physical, emotional and developmental health, providing timely and insightful data to state and federal policymakers.
  • Sherry Hunt at the Department of Agriculture — Pioneered critically needed design techniques to rehabilitate and strengthen thousands of aging dams across the United States, limiting potential failures that could lead to the loss of life and property.
  • Brigitte C. Widemann and team at the NIH — Developed a breakthrough medical treatment for children with inoperable tumors that cause disabling pain, disfigurement, blindness and motor dysfunction.

The winners of each award will be announced later in the year.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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