Keeping a Bag at the Ready for When She Gets the Call

Easy rider

When my two-year term as vice chairwoman ended last March, I moved from the sixth floor to the fourth floor, to an office with a similar setup. Our building, which is south of the National Mall, faces L’Enfant Plaza. With an office on the south side, I can see almost all modes of transportation, including planes taking off and landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport; the traffic on Interstate 395, which my office overlooks; and a sliver of the Potomac. I ride my bike about two and a half miles to work every day. My route is through the Capitol Hill neighborhood, past the Capitol grounds, down the National Mall, left at the red Smithsonian Castle and then up the hill to my office. The bike’s a cruiser. Other bikers leave me in the dust.

A green thumb

I love plants. My background is public health, and I think a plant-filled office is healthier. Plants also make an office warmer and more welcoming, which I want because we deal with such serious subjects. We talk about accident prevention, but it’s prevention of death and injury, so we’re investigating tragic occurrences. I take 10 or 15 minutes every day to care for my plants. People often ask me if someone else takes care of them, but they’d probably look nicer if that were the case. I do manage to keep them alive.

Signed by the president

One of the frames above the conference table contains the letter designating me vice chairman, signed by President Barack Obama. He nominated me, and the Senate confirmed me. My diploma from Rice University in Texas is also there. I enjoyed my time at Rice and have art and mementos from Texas around the office. I was born in Vietnam, but my mom is Chinese, so you could say I’m Vietnamese-Chinese-Texan-American.

A moment’s notice

I keep a bag in the office so I can travel to an accident site at a moment’s notice. It contains my personal protective equipment — like goggles, reflective safety vest and steel-toe boots — and clothing for several types of weather. In December, I traveled to the DuPont, Wash., train derailment. Board members alternate duty weeks for going to accident sites. We talk to government officials, experts conducting the investigation and so forth, and then to the families and the news media. It seems important for a lot of people to travel to where their loved one died.

Lunchtime strolls

I never eat at my desk. Occasionally I sit at the conference table, but ideally, I’ll take a walk and eat at one of the Smithsonian gardens. I often have business meetings over lunch, and I like to eat with staff members because it’s important to learn who people are and more about their work.

Keepsakes from my travels

On my bookcases are a copper plate from Chile, where I attended school as part of my undergraduate work, and two pieces of blue and black Raku pottery by a Houston artist. I also lived in Paraguay and have two pieces of pottery made by the native Guarani people, and a cup for drinking mate, a tea popular there.

A family pilgrimage

Last summer, I traveled to Vietnam with my family, to Hoi An, my ancestral home, and brought back a paper ship and a paper bridge, a replica of the Japanese Friendship Bridge, or the Covered Bridge, not far from where my family lives. I try to have all modes of transportation around so it doesn’t look like I have a favorite.

A plate of her own

I gave a talk at a Virginia highway safety summit last year about the ways the state has improved highway safety and what else they could do, like passing a primary seatbelt law so that police officers can stop drivers for not wearing a seatbelt. Part of my doctoral dissertation was on the effectiveness of these laws to decrease traffic deaths, so it’s personally and professionally important to me. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles was giving out license plates to recognize police officers who had improved traffic safety in some way, and I remember thinking maybe someday I could get one. I didn’t know they had already prepared one for me as a thank you. Mine said “NTSB” and “42” because I’m the 42nd member of the N.T.S.B.

Spell check

I bought the letters on the windowsill that spell out N.T.S.B. at Eastern Market, a historic market with artisans outside near my house. They were made by another Texas artist and are recycled metal. The S is a little wobbly, so I use a box that my husband gave me to prop it up.

Content originally published on by As told to PATRICIA R. OLSEN