Public Service Awards: UVA Honors Those Who Built Bridges, Led Pandemic Efforts

May 12, 2022
Collage of portraits of Public Service award winners.

A bridge-builder in the health district, a pair of professors who helped wrongfully convicted persons and a trio of scientists who analyzed the coronavirus early in the pandemic have been awarded this year’s University of Virginia public service awards.

Sharon Veith won the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Public Service. She has been the UVA School of Nursing liaison to Charlottesville’s Westhaven neighborhood for more than five years, working with community members, steering committee partners and many agencies that serve within the community. Veith epitomizes the award’s purpose: “to recognize a faculty member whose work demonstrates the greatest positive impact in a particular place or community and who has undertaken that work together with students.”

Additionally, two teams of faculty members won the Provost’s Office Award for Collaborative Excellence in Public Service.

Deirdre Enright and Jennifer Givens, professors at the School of Law, won for their efforts in directing the Innocence Project at the UVA Law School, which over time has freed and exonerated a number of wrongfully convicted men, while increasing public awareness of how innocent people can sometimes be incarcerated.

Jiangzhuo Chen, Bryan Lewis and Srini Venkatramanan, of UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute,  won for their work analyzing the coronavirus as the pandemic unfolded, and advising UVA and other authorities.

The collaborative award, which also requires student involvement on projects, recognizes diverse departments and disciplines who’ve had an impact on societal wellbeing in a particular area. The selection committee for these public service awards includes members of the Charlottesville community, as well as UVA faculty.

Provost Ian Baucom, Vice Provost for Academic Outreach Louis Nelson and other University officials feted the group of winners at a Monday reception (where UVA teaching awardees were also celebrated).

Sharon Veith, Assistant Professor of Nursing

Veith emphasizes how important it is to be genuine and committed in a role like hers, working with a public housing community that has not always been well-served by organizations. Counter to that history, the Westhaven Nursing Clinic has been “a vital place of connection and support for over 30 years,” Veith wrote in a reflective statement.

“Public service requires respect, humility, authenticity, kindness, and relationships. … Our mission is to provide a safe place with a holistic approach to improving the physical and mental health and wellbeing of the community while building trust and bridging gaps.”

Portrait of Sharon Veith
Sharon Veith has been the School of Nursing liaison to Charlottesville’s Westhaven neighborhood for more than five years, working with community members and local agencies. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Her nominators, including partners from the Blue Ridge Health District, wrote about how helpful she has been during the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that she reached out to families personally to help remove barriers to getting them vaccinated.

The vaccination effort that Veith helped coordinate resulted in about 600 vaccines administered through 10 vaccine clinics in the community. Veith spent hours working with community partners to organize the clinics as the pandemic conditions changed and required more volunteer hours.

As a clinical instructor, Veith brings students to work in the clinic for 12-week rotations, but they don’t just learn the activities of a community nurse, important as those are. They also learn about the community they are serving, meeting weekly with residents with whom they are paired.

The nursing students learn to contribute beyond the traditional nursing roles, including the pick-up and delivery of food directly to the community kitchen, helping with things like a telephone that isn’t working, and developing an afterschool curriculum to teach elementary and middle schoolers about health, careers and self-care.

They especially made an impact with children during the vaccine drives, Veith noted. At the vaccine clinic for 5- to 11-year-olds, UVA students set up a fun area for observation and to allow for questions and concerns. Although only 16 children had been registered at first, when other children walked by after school, they went and told their parents, and by the end, 43 children had been vaccinated.

A colleague called her “a true public servant” and “a role model” to everyone at the University.

Deirdre Enright and Jennifer Givens, School of Law

Deirdre Enright founded The Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions that have sent innocent individuals to prison. From 2015 to 2021, she and Jennifer Givens were codirectors, leading students who help work on such cases. Now Givens is working with Associate Director Juliet Hatchett while Enright pursues a new project focused on reform.

Enright and Givens have worked “to combat one of the most serious injustices that any society can commit: falsely convicting people of crimes,” Law Dean Risa Goluboff wrote in nominating them for the award. “They perform this work tirelessly and effectively with a cadre of UVA Law students at their sides. They free innocent people from prison, heal families, build communities and improve the justice system.”

Portraits of Deirdre Enright and Jennifer Givens
Law professors Deirdre Enright and Jennifer Givens won a public service award for their efforts in directing the Innocence Project, seeking to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Pursuing justice in these kinds of cases is “grueling work,” Goluboff noted, yet the Innocence Project has reached many successes. In this year alone, the team had six long-term clients pardoned and worked with state lawmakers to obtain $6.25 million in compensation for them.

“From a pedagogical perspective, the challenge is to convey the rewards and value of this work without simultaneously discouraging students by appearing cynical, jaded and burned out. In order to thread this needle, it’s imperative to convey the importance of collaboration,” Givens wrote.

This work has taught students important lessons, as one student’s letter of support for Enright and Givens shows: “My life, and those of countless others, are forever changed as a result of being a part of these families.” The student was referring to the families brought back together when someone gets released, and the closeness the people who work on these cases often feel for the beneficiaries.

“Our approach to this work is the product of that shared public service experience and all the lessons we learned along the way,” Givens said. “While our priority is to train future lawyers to prevent and remedy wrongful convictions, our ancillary goal is to encourage our students to commit themselves to public service (in one form or another) and to impart lessons we believe are imperative to sustaining such a practice.”

Those lessons also include examining possible causes for wrongful convictions and learning to collaborate with a range of people involved in the criminal justice system.

Jiangzhuo Chen, Bryan Lewis and Srini Venkatramanan, Biocomplexity Institute

These three research professors led the efforts that pivoted the Biocomplexity Institute’s infectious disease translational research program – “translational” meaning research that can be directly applied to help people – into addressing the coronavirus public health problem on a daily basis.

As part of the COVID-19 Response Team, they blended research, practice and service to state and federal authorities.

Portraits of Jiangzhou Chen, Bryan Lewis, and Srini Venkatramanan
Jiangzhuo Chen, Bryan Lewis and Srini Venkatramanan, of UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, analyzed the coronavirus as the pandemic unfolded and advised authorities. (Chen’s photo contributed; other photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The institute’s executive director, Christopher Barrett, who nominated them, wrote that “during this period, which continues even today, these three individuals directed scientific activity of the Institute into sustained, high intensity, public service for the governor’s offices, notably the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, and various U.S. national agencies, notably the Department of Defense.”

Rising to the challenge of public service, the team developed “innovative advances in real-time epidemiology in a highly uncertain scientific environment and applied them to the community’s human needs in a highly uncertain social environment,” Barrett said.

Dr. Mitchell Rosner, who chairs the Department of Medicine at UVA Health, pointed out that the team gave UVA leaders the knowledge they needed for the safety of those on Grounds and also “served the University’s commitment to support the safety of the Charlottesville and Albemarle County communities at large. Their critical tools not only modeled the effects of variations and mitigating factors, but also allowed the University to have foresight into estimating how each mitigating factor could affect transmission or further augment [safety].”

The team also included students in a rare opportunity to experience how scientists in large teams can collaborate on problems of global consequence. They learned how real-time epidemiological science is performed.

“Apart from being exposed to important state-of-the-art technical concepts in computing, epidemiology, data science, social and behavioral sciences, and statistics and mathematics, students also learned how to work on real-world policy questions,” Barrett said. “Work done during these 22 months taught them how to balance scientific rigor with timely results and analysis.”

One student added, “As they were teaching me and others what amounted to a crash course in real-time epidemiological modeling, the nominees were also working tirelessly to ensure that our work accounted for the ever-changing knowledge on COVID-19 and was presented in a way that could be efficiently understood by policymakers.”

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