Turtles, bats and atmospheric gas bring new staffer to science and technology committee

Victoria Johnston has worked with sea turtles and fruit bats. She now works with a different kind of animal: lawmakers.

The 24-year-old Columbia University graduate has joined the House Science and Technology Committee as a research assistant.

Johnston majored in astrophysics and, while pursuing her degree, began work on a NASA-funded project to help build a spectrometer. (A spectrometer, she patiently explains, “looks at light in different wavelengths. It’s basically a very technologically advanced prism.”)

She worked alongside two teams of French scientists, who had to make a special sleeping bag and build a gondola for the spectrometer to keep it warm and safe for the project’s next step: launching it in a helium balloon.

“We were looking at the movement of gas outside the galaxy,” she says.

Johnston’s scientific pursuits came back down to earth when she went to the Greek island of Crete to volunteer for the country’s sea turtle protection society. She tracked the locations of the mother turtles’ nests and worked to keep tourists and other dangers away so that the eggs could hatch undisturbed.

Johnston also spent time in Australia helping a researcher put tracking devices on a type of fruit bat called a Flying Fox.

She says her new position complements her previous experiences.

Johnston saw “the funding side” of science while working on the NASA project and the “volunteer side” while working abroad.

“I thought it would be interesting to see it from the government side,” she said.


McCollum scheduler waited patiently to exercise his rights

Ben Peterson waited 10 hours to vote for the losing candidate in the 2004 presidential race, and all he got was an “I voted” sticker.

Peterson, the new scheduler for Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), affixed that sticker to the inside of his wallet to serve as a constant reminder of the time he had to commit to cast his first presidential vote.

Peterson was a freshman at rural Ohio’s Kenyon College at the time, and he had planned a morning trip to the polls so that he could vote before heading to class. The precinct had two voting machines for the town’s 200 people and two more machines for the college’s 1,600 students, faculty and staff.

“The line stretched out the door,” he says. He felt it was important to cast his vote, though, and took his place at the back of the line. Ten hours later — after making friends with the strangers around him, being offered pizza and hearing professors’ exhortations to stay in line — Peterson pulled the lever.

“We were on the news — we were one of the last voting polling places to close in the nation,” he says.

To commemorate the event, he made sure to get his sticker, even though that, too, was a task.

“I walked up to the woman, and I said, ‘Can I have my “I voted” sticker?’ ” he said. “She said, ‘I don’t have any with me.’ And I pretty much had to demand my sticker.”

That was the beginning of Peterson’s interest in electoral politics, as well as a new approach to voting.

“Needless to say, in 2006, I voted absentee,” he said. “I will probably do so again this year.”