Student Profile: George Shillinger

by Diane Richards

 When asked why he became a marine biologist, George Shillinger first credits his parents, who fostered a love of animals in their children. A native Californian, George fondly describes his childhood in Campbell, a Silicon Valley suburb, and specifically recalls building an aviary with his father, a NASA engineer. Later, his family would move down the coast to San Diego, where he spent his teens, learning to surf, scuba dive and sport fish. His mother, a high school teacher, encouraged her son's interest in marine biology by sending him to special summer programs at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. George loved the water.

San Diego was still a fishing community with canneries—"very tuna-centric," he recalls. As a teenager, George gained powerful insight into the complex challenge of ocean resource management when he worked one summer on a commercial tuna boat. "It was so easy to begin seeing these fish as money," he explains, and blue sharks as inconvenient by-catch that damaged nets and catch, costing fishers precious time and money. It didn't feel right, yet the issues were far from simple "The owner of the boat had to feed his family."

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, George studied the biological basis of behavior. More importantly, he participated in summer programs in Ecuador and Costa Rica, where he witnessed first hand multi-faceted pressures on native ecosystems and biodiversity in Latin America. Before enrolling in graduate school, George spent nearly a decade working for conservation groups in positions that both tapped his biology background, and called upon his strengths as an analyst, strategist and fundraiser.

On full scholarship, George earned a Master's degree program in biology at Stanford in 1997. With real-world savvy from his years of observing the mechanics of conservation initiatives, he added an MBA from Yale to his credentials. Today, George is pursuing a Ph.D. in marine biology under Stanford professor and TOPP principal investigator, Barbara Block. In addition to his studies and TOPP research, George remains actively involved with Conservation International, which helps facilitate the turtle tagging.