President Barack Obama recently appointed School of Public Health alumna Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr to the position of vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Dr. Dinh-Zarr earned both her PhD (‘01) and MPH (‘97) at The University of Texas School of Public Health, part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
[Photo: The University of Texas School of Public Health alumna, Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, being sworn-in to her position as vice chairman of the NTSB. Also pictured is her husband, Dr. Robert Zarr, also an alumnus of the School of Public Health. Photo courtesy of the NTSB.]
The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating all civil aviation accidents in the United States as well as significant railroad, highway, marine and pipeline accidents. The agency determines the probable cause of these accidents, coordinates Federal government and other resources to provide assistance to victims and their family members and makes recommendations to prevent accidents in the future. It also conducts transportation safety studies.
Dr. Dinh-Zarr, the first Asian American to serve on the five-member Board, was born in Vietnam and spent her childhood on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
On how she ended up in transportation safety via an education in public health, she says, “I think it’s a really unusual path, perhaps, for someone from a public health background, but I hope this encourages more people in public health to go into injury prevention related to transportation. I think it’s a great field — it’s very important. Our country and our world depend on transportation. Public health students and professionals have a key role to help make our roads, skies, rails and seas safer.” To read her take on how public health relates to transportation safety, read her blog post titled, “What is a public health scientist doing at the NTSB?” She wrote another post on her inspiration to focus on public health: her family (read “A week 40 years in the making”).
Dinh-Zarr tells the tale of an unfortunate turn of events while driving to turn in her master’s thesis. On the way to the school’s Houston campus, where she studied, a distracted driver caused an accident with her car on nearby Almeda Road. “I was pretty seriously injured, but all I kept saying when the firemen put me onto the stretcher was, ‘Where’s my thesis? Please save my thesis!’ — and they did. They put the thesis into the ambulance with me.”
“They got a few blood spots on it, but I saved that draft!” she says. “And of course, I was wearing my seatbelt, so I was lucky. I’m sure I would have been much more seriously injured had I not been wearing a seatbelt.” Then she joked, “Not only did it save my life, it saved my master’s thesis.”
Upon hearing the news of Dr. Dinh-Zarr’s appointment to the NTSB, a former member of her dissertation committee, Dr. Sharon Cooper, a professor now at the School of Public Health’s San Antonio Regional Campus, reflected on Dr. Dinh-Zarr’s time at the school. “I met her when she took my injury epidemiology class, and she has never strayed from her passion for addressing transportation injuries from a policy view,” says Dr. Cooper.