ALAMEDA -- Dinosaurs have never lost their ability to fascinate. Enthusiasts of all ages learn their long names and study their bizarre characteristics. People love dinosaurs and want to know what happened to them. Was their extinction caused by a giant asteroid colliding with Earth? College of Alameda chemistry professor Peter Olds and three of his students, Jon Howell, Jessica Ng and Jenna Luckhardt, are collecting evidence that could bring us closer to understanding what happened 66 million years ago.
The group is investigating rocks from the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T boundary, impact event at an Earth and Planetary Science Department lab at UC Berkeley, separating and identifying grains of the mineral chromite, integral to the question of what occurred.
"Our project has to do with the impact we think took place 66 million years ago, which is thought to be responsible for the extinction of the nonavian dinosaurs and maybe 75 percent of the species at the time," Olds said.
In October, Olds and two of his students went to Southern Colorado to collect layers of material at the K-T boundary site, returning with kilograms of material. Since then, they have been working to separate out trace amounts of chromite in order to perform different chemical analyses and determine their origin.
"If the chromites are terrestrial, it will throw into doubt that the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatán Peninsula is the only K-T boundary impact site," Olds said. "If they are extraterrestrial, science may be able to identify the class of meteorite that hit."
Beyond providing answers to important science questions, Olds views his project as a unique opportunity for community college students to be exposed to scientific research and would like to see it expanded into a rock chemistry program.
"This gives students an opportunity to perform applied laboratory work that's actually going somewhere," he said. "It could help them transfer to a four-year university like (UC) Berkeley or get a job as a tech in a chemistry, environmental or biotech company."
Jon Howell went to Colorado, excavated some of the material and is working in the lab, performing mineral digestions and using a scanning-electron microscope to examine chromite grains.
"That my job is actually finding original pieces of the asteroid that struck the earth and killed the dinosaurs is really cool to me," Howell said.
Beyond the coolness factor, Howell adds that the project is giving him great lab experience and helping him direct his studies toward geology with hopes of transferring to UC Berkeley. Working his way through college, Howell also appreciates the paid-job side of the project.
"Actually being able to work somewhere that's applicable to what I'm studying is so important," he said.
Whenever Olds describes the project to his Chemistry 1B classes, several students show an interest, but right now he only has space for two or three. That could change if a rock chemistry lab could be established at the Peralta Colleges' science facility at 860 Atlantic Ave. in Alameda, something Olds believes would benefit many students from many different ethnic and economic backgrounds.
"This project has the potential to continue for many years," Olds said. "Whenever you answer a question in science, 10 more questions appear. There could be many spinoffs."
If Olds' ideas become reality, those science questions could be answered at 860 Atlantic Ave., providing students at the Peralta Colleges with a unique opportunity in scientific research.