AAAS member Larry Meinert has been working in the office of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords as the Geological Society of America/United States Geological Survey Congressional Fellow. He was in Washington, D.C. on the morning of January 8, when a lone gunman opened fire on an assembly of Giffords' staff and supporters outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. Six people were fatally shot, nineteen others injured including the Congresswomen who suffered a gunshot through the head.
Meinert agreed to speak with AAAS MemberCentral about the shootings and how he and fellow staffers are moving forward with the work of her office.
AAASMC: First, how are you and Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords staff doing?
Larry Meinert, Congressional Fellow: We feel an obligation and inspiration to carry on with what we were brought here to do. Each staffer, both in D.C. and Tucson, is continuing with the projects that we started before the tragic events of January 8.
AAASMC: We'll come back and talk a little more about the tragedy but let's switch gears. Tell us how you wound up working in Giffords' office.
Meinert: As one of 29 Congressional Fellows I was turned loose on Congress to interview with as many offices and committees as I wanted. I interviewed with personal member offices and committee offices, with Senate and House offices both Democrat and Republican. It's somewhat like a high school senior prom, where there are a lot of people milling around asking if you want to dance or not. You're basically feeling each other out.
Initially I thought that I would work in the Senate because there are fewer offices, the staffs are bigger, and there is more opportunity to work on a specific subject area. But as I interviewed with these offices and saw how they actually worked I was drawn to the House side with the smaller offices where you are exposed to a lot more of the process, like constituent concerns from your district and the nuts and bolts of the legislative process. There is plenty of opportunity for doing meetings on subjects that you may know nothing about. Since my fellowship is a one-year fellowship, I wanted to learn as much as I could and I ended up gravitating towards the House.
I chose Giffords' office for two reasons. First, the Congresswoman is extremely friendly and has a vibrant personality, as you probably have heard from all the newscasts. She's somebody everybody likes, and you just want to work with her and for her. The other attraction for me was that this office has two former Congressional Fellows on the staff -- Elaine Ulrich and Gavi Begtrup, so I knew that I would be mentored quite well by them. This office has a lot of interest in scientists and scientific issues. We scientists like to be with other scientists, I suppose. The combination of having lots of people working on science in a friendly environment was why I chose to work here.
AAASMC: What are you currently working on?
Meinert: I work on a lot of natural resource and energy issues. Anything that comes through the door that has physical science attached, I am one of the people to advise.
I've been working a lot on the use of rare earth elements and critical metals like cobalt and lithium, which are used to make cell phones, wind turbines, solar energy, and hybrid cars. These elements are becoming more important to our energy future and having access to these resources is crucial.
Because of my background in geology, I understand how these minerals occur in nature and how you would look for them.
AAASMC: Let's talk a little about the tragic loss on January 8.
Meinert: It was a shocking tragedy beyond anyone's comprehension. Even more shocking, that it could happen to a person who was universally loved by everybody who came in contact with her. I was not in Tucson at the event itself but this is my family, my congressional family that I am working with for the year and we were attacked.
Losing a staffer, Gabriel "Gabe" Zimmerman, having Giffords and several other staffers seriously injured, that all of us have worked with so closely, you go through all the stages of grief. I think a lot of us felt like we'd lost something really near and dear to us in our colleagues.
This event, just like 9/11, has forever changed how people will interact with our Congressional representatives. It's a sad thing but a reality that I don't think any Congressperson will ever have quite the freedom of action that they did before this event occurred.
AAASMC: Are people offering support, rallying to your side?
Meinert: We have had an outpouring of support from people all over the world. Each staffer has heard from people from the moment they were born to the present. They are coming out of the woodwork to express their condolences. It's been a positive element out of this. Personally, I've heard from a lot of relatives and friends, many who knew I was working in Congress somewhere but didn't know how close I was to the Congresswomen. They ask, \Were you anywhere near this?\" And I've explained that while I was not in Tucson that day, I actually work in Congresswomen Giffords' office.
AAASMC: Is the staff getting updates on the injured?
Meinert: We get some updates through the media, some through our chain of command. Our Chief of Staff Pia Carusone has been with the Congresswomen both in Tucson and now in Houston. We've been back to Tucson several times. I was there for the funeral of Gabe Zimmerman and had personal contact with some of the people who were injured -- Pam Simon and Ron Barber. Both were seriously shot and they were at Gabe's funeral. It was very moving to see them only a week after the shooting. Ron Barber even stood up and addressed the funeral. Six days before this guy was in critical care. It was astounding.
AAASMC: Anything you'd like to tell Giffords?
Meinert: We are all wishing a complete recovery for her and for all those injured by this horrible act. Giffords sustained a serious injury and we are all hopeful, as is everyone else in the world, that she will be back with us as soon as possible.