St. Andrew's Head and Student Enjoy a Jurassic Bond and Love for Paleontology
St. Andrew's Head and Student Enjoy a Jurassic Bond and Love for Paleontology

Article written by Michael Tsai
This story appeared in the July 3, 2018 print and online editions of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

A couple of weekends ago, St. Andrew's Schools head Ruth Fletcher and eighth-grader Jemma Stollberg took in a matinee showing of "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," the fifth installment in Steven Spielberg's dinosaur-driven film franchise.

Both gave the film favorable reviews as a worthwhile summer popcorn action-thriller. But as par­ticularly discerning view­ers of dinosaur-driven cinema, they also took critical note of a few dramatic embellishments.

Take those famous, fearsome velociraptors.

"In real life they were only 1 to 2 feet tall, had feathers and were as intelligent as chickens," Stollberg said with incisive precision. "If I were locked in a lab with them, I wouldn't be fearing for my life."

But the exaggerated depiction serves the storytelling, Stollberg allows, just as the gross misrepresentation of the mosasaurus — "They were about 60 feet in real life, but in the scene where it jumps up, it's shown as more like 600 feet" — did for 2015's "Jurassic World."

And besides, picking out the inconsistencies is half the fun for two people who share a passion for paleontology.

And what a pair they are: Stollberg, a whip-smart teen who has loved dinosaurs for as long as she can remember, and Fletcher, a former paleontologist with experience in paleo-oceanography and biostratigraphy.

Stollberg enjoyed a childhood spent nose-deep in books about prehistoric animals. Her passion was further stoked by Nigel Marven's "Prehistoric Park" series.

For Stollberg the magic of the dinosaurs is the great mystery they represent.

"They had such raw power," she said. "They were forces of nature and then they disappeared. It happened such a long time ago that a lot of what we learn about them is up to our imagination."

Fletcher said her own fascination with the geological past dates back to her investigations of rocks and fossils during family camping trips. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, she found herself enamored with historical geology.

"I couldn't believe it was a science," she said, laughing.

Fletcher would go on to graduate with a dual degree in biology and geology. She would return to Delaware to complete a master's degree in geology and paleontology and a Ph.D. in paleo-oceanography.

She spent her early professional life helping to identify potential reservoirs for an oil and gas exploration company. She was later hired by Exxon to examine fossils to determine the time periods of dig sites.

In 1991 Fletcher's husband, Charles, was hired as a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Hawaii. Fletcher took the opportunity to pursue her interest in education, landing a job as a science teacher at Punahou School, where she would also serve as science department head, academy dean, college counselor and dean of professional programs. She also would earn a second master's degree in private school leadership through a joint program between UH and the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

Two years ago she took over as head of schools for St. Andrew's.

Fletcher's education and career in science were realized prior to the current push for greater inclusion in STEM-related fields, which include science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was her interest and aptitude that led to her acceptance in a field dominated by men. She credits her success in part to the guidance of devoted mentors, none of whom, she noted, were women.

In Stollberg, who seeks to walk in her footsteps, Fletcher has found an opportunity to be the type of role model and mentor she lacked as a young scientist.

"It's just refreshing," she said. "It's nice to talk to someone who knows so much. Most people don't want to go into depth and ponder the big questions. Jemma does. Part of what attracts both of us to paleontology is the question of how life came to be on Earth."

Not long after they first met, Fletcher gave Stollberg a small fossil, a tangible reminder of the grounding in fieldwork that paleontology requires as well as a symbol of the imagination required to re-create reality. Where, one wonders, does this tiny piece fit?