The Honorable T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., MPH: A Moving Story

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

A chance encounter at the Texas Medical Center Bus Stop years ago led to the first BIO191 Stories in STEM talk on Wednesday, September 9. For it was at that bus stop that Professor Kim, a new Assistant Professor of Biology, met the Honorable T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., MPH, the first speaker of this series.

The image above is from this New York Times article written about T. Bella Dinh-Zarr

The Honorable T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., MPH, trained as a public health scientist and is dedicated to promoting safe, sustainable transportation. She served on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent U.S. agency charged with conducting investigations and making safety recommendations in all areas of transportation. Nominated by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, Dr. Dinh-Zarr chaired NTSB board meetings, conducted investigative hearings, and represented the agency at the scene of high-profile disasters from 2015-2019. She is a fierce advocate for safe, sustainable transportation. 

But how does one end up with an Honorable in front of their name? How was she appointed to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)? There is no one story or path to where Dr. Dinh-Zarr is today, but hers is one guided by self-discovery and self-advocacy.

Born in Vietnam, Dr. Dinh-Zarr and her family fled to Galveston, Texas when she was just four years old. Here, their physician family friends helped them acclimatize them to their new environment, but Dr. Dinh-Zarr gives the title of her fiercest protector to her friend Marsha who protected her from childish bullying when Dr. Dinh-Zarr began learning English. Growing up, Dr. Dinh-Zarr loved math, history, and learning new languages. She then majored in Spanish at Rice University where she also took a lot of STEM courses for pre-med requirements. As a student, Dr. Dinh-Zarr worked at the Galveston Railroad Museum, built latrines in Paraguay, and studied Latin American literature in Chile. Experiencing new cultures and ways of life first hand, she realized it wasn’t medicine (focusing on individual patients’ health) that she was interested in but public health (preventing illness and injury, especially in a population).

After a brief detour into Medical School, Dr. Dinh-Zarr went to the University of Texas School of Public Health and specialized in injury prevention. She also was awarded fellowships at the Institute of Child Health in London and the U.S. Guide to Community Preventive Services. These fellowships introduced her to systematic reviews, where you conduct a careful and systematic search for all currently available evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, and synthesize it, often in the form of a meta-analysis. Dr. Dinh-Zarr credits her experience in public health for enabling her to work in nearly any type of organization.

Since graduating from Rice University, Dr. Dinh-Zarr previously served as North American Director and United Nations Representative for the FIA Foundation, an international philanthropy, and has held positions at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), American Automobile Association (AAA), Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She was able to experience such a wide array of careers simply by cold emailing people in these organizations. Now on the other end of these cold emails, she realized that though cold emailing can be scary, it is often just as rewarding for the person receiving the email to help out a younger person. 

When nominated by President Obama to NTSB, Dr. Dinh-Zarr was tasked with conducting transportation investigations and preventing future mishaps. A consequential, even daunting, role that her wide array of experiences prepared her for. Her undergraduate and graduate STEM training offered her a framework for approaching transportation safety in a logical, evidence-based manner. Her experience with systematic reviews through fellowships prepared her to draw from existing sources and evidence and make a conclusion about a specific case and make evidence-based claims to prevent such a tragedy from repeating.

Though her previous careers all seem to have culminated in this position at the NTSB, Dr. Dinh-Zarr is constantly finding new areas of interest. Nearing the end of her term as Vice Chairman and Acting Chairman of NTSB, she declined renomination and instead traveled around the world with her family and focuses on probono work. She currently serves as a volunteer co-founder of the “05 Saves Lives” Coalition” and a volunteer advisor to the nonprofit AIP Foundation/Protec/American Protec PPE which employs people with and without disabilities to make helmets and masks. Her background in public health equips her with the tools to continue making a positive impact on society.

But her experiences are not those that could be planned for. Dr. Dinh-Zarr’s story exemplifies the importance of flexibility, following your ever-changing interests, and most importantly carrying forward the skills you already have to new fields. It also reinforces the numerous opportunities that can arise from reaching out and getting to know others, whether that be cold emailing a role model or talking to a stranger at a bus stop.