Every year, hundreds of thousands of people experience powerful moments of connection with animals while exploring the Tennessee Aquarium.
The bonds forged through close encounters with the Aquarium’s living collection can have a lasting impact on a person’s relationship to the natural world. In a few rare cases, however, a visit can shape the trajectory of a person’s entire life.
“The Tennessee Aquarium was the first aquarium I ever visited as a child,” says Natali Rodgers. “I can still vividly remember walking through River Journey and being mesmerized. My visits to this aquarium sparked wonder and curiosity in marine science and shaped my career.”
Ms. Rodgers now walks these same galleries as the Aquarium’s new director of learning and evaluation, living out a dream to inspire others.
“I was always a science kid who loved animals,” she says. “When I realized that I could work at an aquarium, I began to plan out how I would achieve just that.”
Born in Memphis, Ms. Rodgers lived much of her life in Atlanta and studied marine science and biology at Savannah State University. After graduating, she worked as an educator at Zoo Atlanta before being tapped as the guest experience manager for the Kansas City Zoo.
For the last three years, she served as the Missouri institution’s senior education manager, a role she says sated her need to make meaningful change by “inspiring future generations.”
“Initially my plan had nothing to do with being an educator,” Ms. Rodgers says. “But after working in various roles at Zoo Atlanta, I realized just how passionate I was about science education and the importance of engaging visitors in conservation.”
After building a career out of helping others discover an appreciation of the natural world, Ms. Rodgers is returning to the place where the seeds of her love for animals were planted, on the banks of the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga.
Since opening in 1992, the Aquarium has served as an educational destination for students from all over the nation and an invaluable educational resource for teachers. In her new role, Ms. Rodgers will guide the Aquarium’s award-winning education department, spearheading efforts to develop inclusive programming for on-site visitors as well as educational outreach to the broader community. These programs will target learners of all ages, from preschoolers to postgraduate students.
“My mission will be to provide all people unrestricted access to meaningful and impactful educational opportunities,” she says. “The skills, connections and experiences I have accumulated over the last 15 years at accredited zoos, plus the amazing Tennessee Aquarium team, will help guide me as I approach this new position.”
The opportunity for a homecoming to the birthplace for her love of science is exciting on many levels.
“Becoming the director of learning and evaluation at the place where it all began is like coming full circle,” Ms. Rodgers says. ‘I get the opportunity to shape minds and create awe for the natural world through impactful learning opportunities.
“I am looking forward to breaking any accessibility barriers to our education programs and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to experience what I experienced as a child.”
And if she’s lucky, she adds, she’ll also sow the seeds for a new crop of science advocates to follow in her footsteps.
“Getting people to care about the natural world is why education is so important in zoos and aquariums. If people care about and are empathetic to the natural world, they are more likely to become great environmental stewards. If I can make this happen, I’ll know I have made a difference.”