WOOSTER, Ohio – Two College of Wooster alumni—Peter Briss ’82 and Elizabeth Warner ‘83—are among the 37 finalists for the 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, it was recently announced by the Partnership for Public Service. Known as the “Sammies,” these awards highlight the unsung heroes in federal government who have made outstanding contributions to different sectors, such as education, health, and safety.
Briss, the medical director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is a finalist for the Science and Environmental Medal. A leader of the CDC’s 2019 Lung Injury Response team, he helped identify the chemical compound in vaping products that caused life-threatening lung injuries in young adults and communicated the danger to public health, which ultimately helped save lives.
A biology major at Wooster, Briss has been with the CDC for 28 years, and his current work focuses on enhancing the conduct, quality, communication, and impact of public health science, and establishing or strengthening links between health care and public health. During an impressive career, he has contributed on a range of health care and community prevention issues, including lead poisoning, vaccine-preventable disease, tobacco, cancer, heart disease, and oral health. He is also board-certified in internal medicine and preventative medicine, and is an active clinician at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Breaking down his work into two key aspects, Briss “ensures the quality and clarity and usefulness of CDC science and builds bridges between health care and public health,” and of the award for which he was nominated, he describes it as “great detective work,” and just one example of the importance of the CDC. “The work that CDC is privileged to do really matters because it advances the public health science that public health and health care can make people’s lives better,” he said.
Warner is a finalist for the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement Medal, which recognizes federal employees who have led significant and sustained achievements over 20 or more years of service in government. At the U.S. Department of Education, she is an economist in the evaluation division of the Institute of Education Sciences. Her groundbreaking research has resulted in influential public policy and spurred significant change with the adoption of new K-12 teacher training and recruiting practices, helping to improve instruction for students in disadvantaged communities as well as throughout the nation.
By designing and overseeing evaluations of federal education programs, Warner’s work has been at the forefront of the move toward evidence-based strategies and new practices to help alleviate teacher shortages and enhance teaching techniques. One example has been getting teachers from non-traditional paths, such as alternative certification criteria, Teach for America and other fellowship programs, and midcareer moves, into the classroom faster and supporting them once they are there because her findings suggest those teachers are at least effective as those who enter through the traditional undergraduate route.
Of her greatest accomplishment, Warner, who double majored in economics and mathematics at Wooster, said it’s a culmination of steady progress over time. “It’s been building a coherent portfolio of evaluations that inform ways to improve effective teaching for all students. Some of our studies point to ways to encourage effective teachers into the profession or to teach in high-need schools. A major portion of the work has focused on learning about whether the existing strategies are productive or unproductive and improving the effectiveness of current teachers. It’s this building of evidence that has been really satisfying to me,” she explained.
All of the “Sammies” winners will be announced this fall, but there’s also a special People’s Choice Award, which is being determined by on-line voting.