NIEHS epidemiologist Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., is one of 32 federal employees named as finalists for the 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which highlight excellence in the federal workforce. Also known as the Sammies, the medals are considered the Oscars of government service, because of the vigorous selection process.
Wilcox and the other finalists were honored at a reception May 3 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and winners will be announced at a black tie gala Sept. 20.
Trailblazer in reproductive epidemiology
Wilcox became head of the NIEHS Reproductive Epidemiology Group in 1979, focusing on how environmental exposures affect human reproduction. His research determined that one-quarter of pregnancies are lost before women know they are pregnant. An interest in birth defects led to his discovery that environmental factors, such as low folic acid and other vitamin deficiencies, cause facial clefts in newborns.
By developing a method to assess human fertility, based on women’s time to pregnancy, Wilcox and his team showed that maternal smoking reduces fertility. This approach is now widely used by environmental epidemiologists to identify other factors that damage fertility. His current project is a study of cerebral palsy and its prenatal causes, based on more than 200,000 pregnancies in Norway and Denmark.
The Partnership for Public Service selected Wilcox as a finalist for its Career Achievement Medal, based on these and other scientific advances. He is the only 2016 finalist from the National Institutes of Health, and the first NIEHS scientist to garner this prestigious award.
"Allen is viewed as the father of the epidemiologic study of human reproduction, and he has defined the field over his 37-year career," said NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D. "He has made seminal discoveries that have enhanced our knowledge of fertility, pregnancy, and reproduction."
Wilcox said he was awestruck to be included with so many outstanding federal servants. "I met the director of the space mission that reached Pluto last summer; a Medicare expert who instituted quality control measures, preventing 87,000 hospital deaths; and a meteorologist who has flown into hundreds of tropical storms to provide accurate storm forecasts," Wilcox said. "At a time when public service doesn’t have much glamour, it’s great to be reminded of the range of very talented people in government."
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., said it was fitting for Wilcox to be in the running for a Career Achievement Medal. "He has been involved in so many landmark studies in women’s health that he has truly left his mark on the field," she said.
Dale Sandler, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, also praised his work. “Allen’s foundational study of early pregnancy is widely recognized as an outstanding example of how observational research can also be used to advance understanding of biological mechanisms," she said.
Partnership for Public Service
The Partnership for Public Service is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps the government serve the needs of all Americans, by strengthening the civil service and the systems that support it.
"The future of our nation quite simply depends on the quality of our government," said the late Samuel J. Heyman, who founded the group in 2001. He served as chairman until his passing in 2009.