The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) pay tribute to America's dedicated federal workforce, highlighting those who have made significant contributions to our country. Honorees are chosen based on their commitment and innovation, as well as the impact of their work on addressing the needs of the nation.
As the number of children with AIDS increased dramatically in the United States and around the world during the late 1980s, the depressing fact was that little could be done to prevent infants from getting HIV, the virus that causes the terrible disease.
Fast forward more than two decades to November 2011 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced that creating an AIDS-free generation worldwide, one in which no children are born with the HIV infection, is not only possible, but a U.S. policy priority.
Among those who played a pivotal role in curtailing the deadly epidemic among children is Dr. Lynne Mofenson, a physician at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who helped design and conduct a seminal pediatric AIDS clinical trial, and has since dedicated her career to conducting additional research and influencing national policy in the field.
“Lynne has been the preeminent scientific leader in the prevention of AIDS in children in the world,” said Dr. R.J. Simonds, a vice president at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Many people have contributed to AIDS research, but Simonds said Mofenson’s work provided clear direction and speed.
“She moved the field along uniquely because of her command of scientific issues,” he said. “Her credibility and knowledge base are unparalleled.”
Mofenson, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, arrived at NIH in 1989, and two years later became involved in starting a bold and controversial clinical study that used the only available anti-AIDS drug, zidovudine, or AZT, as a prevention strategy for the children of HIV-infected pregnant women.
No one had thought of using this drug as a way to stop mothers from passing the disease to their babies, and many couldn’t quite believe its efficacy, said Ambassador Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator. “Frankly, we were blown away,” he said.
To Mofenson, launching the controversial study was a “no brainer.”
“It was a horrible disease, killing mothers and babies. We had to do something,” she said.
The seminal clinical trial demonstrated a two-thirds reduction in the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child, down from 25 percent to 8 percent. It turned the tide on pediatric AIDS.
This clinical trial was the beginning of a long-term collaboration among researchers—called the Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Group—that conducted a series of successful studies to identify and optimize strategies to block mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the primary way children become infected.
After the initial trial was pronounced a success in 1994, Mofenson stacked her plate with the additional role of policy development. Within six months, the U.S. Public Health Service Task Force that she chaired formulated and released national recommendations on pediatric AIDS prevention.
She worked with multiple agencies to implement these recommendations, including getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend universal HIV testing for all pregnant women, the Food and Drug Administration to approve use of AZT in pregnant women, and Medicaid to ensure that health insurance covered use of the drug.
The landmark policy had a rapid and dramatic impact. By 1996, 80 percent of HIV-infected pregnant women in the United States were receiving zidovudine, and the number of HIV infections in children dropped from more than 1,600 per year to less than 500. Today, the number of HIV cases in U.S. children has dropped to less than 100 a year.
“I have no doubt that her scientific acumen to design critical research and translate findings into global clinical practice, her passion to share and collaborate and her hard work and tenacity over the years have uniquely and substantially contributed to preventing AIDS in thousands of children in the U.S. and around the world,” said Goosby.
Mofenson now serves as a leader in research and policy on the world stage, expanding the clinical trials network to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere to fight pediatric AIDS.
James Cash has spent nearly three decades successfully deciphering information from electronic recording devices to help determine the causes of major aviation and other transportation accidents, leading to reforms and greater safety for the traveling public.
As the chief technical advisor for the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Office of Research and Engineering, Cash is the government’s top expert on cockpit voice recorders—the black box devices that record the voices of pilots, co-pilots and engineers during flights, and are used to help determine the system failures and human errors that cause airplane crashes.
“Jim has helped grow the science of cockpit recording devices. He’s been here through the history of recording devices and has led the next generation of recorders,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.
Over the years, Cash has played a pivotal role in the development and use of sophisticated audio, video and data recording devices used to help airlines and other transportation providers determine the causes of accidents, correct serious deficiencies and potentially save countless lives. His job has evolved from extracting information from tape recordings to the use of sophisticated electronic technology.
One of Cash’s innovations involved designing specifications for cutting-edge voice analysis and transcription software that performs readouts and analysis of cockpit voice recorders and other audio devices. The software was the first of its kind to employ voice recognition and speaker identification to automate the process of creating a transcript of recorded events.
Cash’s work also led to the development of software giving the NTSB the ability to extract and analyze recorder data from multiple accidents, which has helped the agency spot trends on safety issues.
After a 1997 crash of a jetliner from Indonesia to Singapore that killed 104 people, Cash saw the need to find a way to piece together damaged recording tape from black box devices. He spearheaded a research effort to obtain data from the damaged tape, enlisting experts and successfully managing to recover critical portions of flight recorder data.
“We were looking for a way to reconstruct audio on the tape from little bitty pieces,” Cash said. “We were able to develop a means of reading individual pieces, digitizing each piece of audio track and reassembling it. It was like gluing together a shredded document.”
Cash’s electrical engineering degree and experience as a U.S. Air Force pilot make him uniquely suited for his job, giving him intimate familiarity with the cockpit environment and first-hand experience of the demands flight crews endure in high-stress situations.
His specialized knowledge and resourcefulness assisted in investigations into two space shuttle accidents and a nuclear submarine collision. He helped the Drug Enforcement Administration analyze GPS data from a vehicle in which agents had been killed in Mexico, and often supplies the FBI and other law enforcement agencies with important information from seized electronic devices.
One of the major accident investigations for Cash involved the case of the 1996 TWA Boeing 747 that exploded over the water 12 minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The NTSB bought a Boeing 747 that was going to be demolished and blew it up to simulate the event. The investigation included tests with small explosives and recording how sound behaves in the plane’s fuselage.
Cash worked with a quarter of a second of noise at the end of the cockpit voice recording from the original flight and compared that with the sounds from the test explosion. His analysis helped provide direction to investigators, who later concluded the accident was due to a maintenance error that allowed high-voltage electricity into the fuel tank that sits below the floor in the fuselage.
James Ritter, deputy director for research and engineering at NTSB, said Cash is continually finding ways to recover and improve the quality of data retrieved from different recorders and incidents. “He is now advocating for cockpit video recording devices,” said Ritter.
Jacob Taylor, a young physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has made pioneering scientific discoveries that in time could lead to significant advances in health care, commu- nications, computing and technology.
As a fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute at NIST since 2009, the 34-year-old Taylor has conceived a number of original theories, including a way to vastly improve magnetic resonance imaging to enable probing down to the cellular and molecular levels. This approach holds the promise of providing detailed information that could lead to far better diagnoses, more targeted medical treatments for patients and rapid turnaround for drug discovery.
He is also responsible for a major breakthrough that could eventually permit the routing of greater quantities of information over the Internet than now possible, while using reduced levels of energy. In addition, Taylor has proposed a novel theory that could help advance the elusive drive toward quantum computing, permitting exponentially faster calculations than conceivable on conventional computers.
Mihkail Lukin, a Harvard University physics professor, said scientists around the world are examining how to harness quantum properties of matter to gather information with higher resolution and sensitivity and to process greater quantities of information faster and more securely.
“Jake has made fundamental contributions in all three of these areas,” said Lukin. “He is one of the most creative young scientists I have ever seen.”
William Phillips, a NIST fellow and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, said Taylor’s ideas are at “the cutting-edge of theoretical physics.”
Phillips said Taylor also “thinks about reality and the practical application of his complex work,” and is engaged in a wide array of experiments that could have “great technological importance” for electronics and communications systems used by consumers and industry.
One of Taylor’s major accomplishments has been the use for the first time of diamond-tipped sensors that can perform magnetic resonance tests on individual cells or on single molecules, a sort of MRI scanner at the microscopic scale.
No one had previously thought diamond crystals could be used for this purpose and in the way devised by Taylor. The physicist now has patents pending on the process and is conducting experiments that have shown success in the laboratory. The work raises the possibility that physicians one day will be able to use the technology to detect diseases at a far earlier stage, and that drug companies may be able to devise more effective medications because of the precise information that will flow from the advanced imaging technology.
Without Taylor’s “pioneering” contributions, said Lukin, “this field of experimentation would not exist.”
Taylor also is experimenting with another magnetic imaging process that works with increased speed and sensitivity, and could allow patients with pacemakers or individuals with shrapnel embedded in their bodies to obtain scans that now might be too risky.
Another Taylor innovation centers on the development of technology for the next generation of Internet routers that rely on light as opposed to electrons to communicate information. The information carried by the router would be immune to the environmental noise and defects encountered with currently available technology, representing an advance over today’s telecommunication applications by increasing bandwidth and reliability, and by reducing energy usage and costs. A patent is pending on this process and experiments are underway.
“It is a thrill to do something that no one has dreamed up or done before,” said Taylor. “It’s what gets me up in the morning—the feeling I can really change the world, at least in small steps.”
Some have called it a “national disgrace,” the presence of thousands of homeless veterans on American streets and in shelters.
In an effort to confront this intractable problem, two federal departments have joined together to reach the goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. It is a challenging task given the high national unemployment rate and the influx of individuals returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have made significant inroads.
HUD and the VA reported a 12 percent drop in homelessness among veterans, from about 76,000 in 2010 to 67,000, as of January 2011. Officials are awaiting the full tabulation of the January 2012 census of the homeless, but expressed optimism that further progress has been made.
Leading the departmental teams are Mark Johnston at HUD and Susan Angell at the VA, both of whom bring many years of experience to the table, significant management skills, knowledge about housing and the needs of veterans. Angell’s team includes Peter Dougherty, Lisa Pape and Vincent Kane, while Johnston’s includes Ann Oliva and Laure Rawson, among others.
The collaboration is unusual, and has allowed both departments to devote expertise and resources to a problem that neither could solve alone.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said Johnston has technical knowledge, an ability to build cohesive teams internally and partnerships externally, and a willingness to make improvements based on data analysis and feedback from the field. He described Johnston as an individual with “a quiet persistence” and an unwavering dedication to the mission.
“For Mark, it is always about the veterans living on the streets,” said Donovan. “It’s always that person or family in front of us that matters.”
John Gingrich, the VA chief of staff, said Angell and her team have been able to eliminate the “stovepipes” that in the past prevented full cooperation between the VA and HUD, and have brought commitment and urgency to serving the needs of homeless veterans.
“Why should someone who fought for our nation sleep on the streets?” said Gingrich. “Susan and her team see everything they do as changing the lives of veterans. For them, this is not a job, it’s a calling.”
The departments administer the HUD-VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH), which combines HUD vouchers for veterans to rent privately-owned housing, and targeted VA services such as health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, vocational assistance, job development and placement.
The program works with public agencies and community organizations to implement many of the targeted interventions needed to assist veterans.
A key program tenet is “housing first,” with permanent housing as the starting point so caseworkers can find and check in more regularly with veterans, and more effectively provide services. The services help veterans get back on their feet and become productive, keeping them from ending up back on the street, in emergency rooms or in trouble.
HUD and VA regularly share information. HUD provides the VA with weekly updates on voucher use, along with detailed reports on the status and recent activity of every veteran in the program.
The VA tracks the number of veterans who are screened and approved for voucher eligibility, are referred to public housing authorities and receive vouchers. The team meets periodically with leadership at both departments to discuss progress and areas requiring improvement.
There are more than 30,000 formerly homeless veterans and their families receiving housing and support services. For fiscal year 2012, Congress has approved an additional 10,000 housing vouchers for homeless veterans that will allow the program to come closer to reaching its goal.