published Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Tennessee Aquarium conservationist combines career and hobbies

Anna Georga, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, looks at the Nickajack Lake exhibit at the aquarium.
Anna Georga, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, looks at the Nickajack Lake exhibit at the aquarium.
Photo by Jake Daniels.
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From a middle-school field trip to a career dedicated to preserving aquatic life, Dr. Anna George has taken a long journey to where she’s ended up.

George, the director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, said her job is improving the environmental biology of Chattanooga.

And when she’s not reintroducing sturgeon into the Tennessee River or restoring habitats for small, spring-dwelling fish in Georgia, she can be found knitting. Or making soap. Or keeping bees. Indeed, George’s drive toward conservation extends to both her personal and professional lives.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: I have no typical day, and that’s a lot of fun. We have several major programs that are going on. The big one is the sturgeon reintroduction program. We raise 2,000 to 4,000 sturgeon every year, and we release those into the Tennessee River near Knoxville. They were lost from Tennessee in about the 1960s. We’re [also] working on habitat restoration in Georgia for a small spring that’s there.

Q: How did you develop your interest in fish and conservation?

A: When I was in middle school, we were living in Alabama and my class took a field trip to the Dauphin Island [Sea] Lab. I just thought it was really fun. We went out. We learned about oysters. It was a really neat experience. So that summer, I convinced my mom to send me to sea camp. I spent a week at sea camp after both seventh and eighth grades and thought: “This is really cool, people actually make money doing this.”

The kicker was when I was in 10th grade (when George attended a summer camp in the Cayman Islands learning scuba diving and marine biology).

Q: How was that?

A: It was life-changing for me. We all went down to Grand Cayman, and they had rented three houses on the beach there, on the North Shore of the Caymans. We would have class, and then we would all swim out off the shore of the beach where our houses were and drop down for a scuba dive.

We did independent research. I studied cleaning shrimp, which are shrimp that clean parasites off of other fish. We went diving every day, and we were high-schoolers on the beach in the Caymans. Life doesn’t get much better than that.


  • Family: Married to David Neely.
  • Education: Bachelor’s in biology from the University of Virginia; Ph.D. from St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., specializing in freshwater fish diversity and conservation genetics.
  • Time in Chattanooga: Five years.
  • Aspiration: Wants to learn how to quilt someday.

Q: Are there some places you’d like to dive?

A: I love diving in the South Pacific: Fiji, Papua New Guinea has really incredible diving. Australia, of course, [has the] the Great Barrier Reef. I studied there in college, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I haven’t spent a lot of time in southern South America or most of Africa. I don’t really want to go diving in [there], I just want to go visit the land. I’m not a big cold-weather person. It’s part of why I love Chattanooga.

Q: And you have some pretty interesting hobbies.

A: I have a lot of weird interests outside of fish. Knitting is probably my main obsession. That started in grad school. You have this dissertation looming in front of you that’s the culmination of all your research and you’re just trying to get something finished and make progress on it. And with knitting, I could knit a hat and have done something in a week.

Q: And beekeeping?

A: Beekeeping is a new hobby for me. It’s something I started since I moved to Tennessee, and it just seemed to fit in with the rest of my life. I live in a small log cabin on top of Signal Mountain. We have a little bit of land out there, and we have a huge garden. Beekeeping for me was a frontier.

Q: What do you want to try next?

A: My husband tells me I’m not allowed to try anything next because I already have too many hobbies.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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