David Price: Crystallographer and Laffan fellow

For Dr David Price, healthy and passionate about his research, being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome came as tremendous shock. CFS, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, rendered Price unable to enjoy marathon bike rides or continue his crystallography research for the group of Professor Cameron Kepert. The Laffan Fellowship, one of the University’s Equity Fellowships, allowed Price to continue his important work in chemistry.

By Tim Groenendyk

David Price

“The equity fellowships are possibly the best thing this university has ever done for equal opportunity for staff." Dr David Price.

“Some people believe chronic fatigue syndrome is just about people being lazy,” said Dr David Price.

“There are a lot of preconceptions about the disease. It’s technically called myalgic encephalomyelitis because a lot of people and clinicians believe that ‘fatigue’ is not an adequate description. The closest description I come up with is that it’s like having a particularly bad flu all the time.”

In fact, Price’s case of CFS/ME – of which he is classified as having a mild to moderate - developed after a nasty virus.

Before his illness Price was doing yoga and cycling, sometimes riding up to 300 kilometres a week.

His cycling passion even took him to Luz-Ardiden, Tourmalet and other summits high up in the mountains of France.

“That was two years before I got ill. That was amazing - riding through the Pyrenees watching the Tour de France.

“So it wasn’t like I was unhealthy.”

Price said he was devastated by the diagnosis of CFS/ME – a condition that can last years or even decades.

“It’s basically shot any chance of having a career, in the short to medium term, down in flames.

“It’s been the worst thing that’s happened to me in my entire life. It sucks.”

Some relief came in 2010 when Price was awarded a Laffan Equity Fellowship to continue his research into coordination frameworks.

“Coordination frameworks are interesting in that materials can be designed and conceived of to display certain properties depending on the components you choose to make them out of.”

Price’s expertise in Cameron Kepert’s molecular materials group is in single crystal x-ray crystallography.

“You take a single crystal and fire x-rays at it using an x-ray diffractometer. Measuring the diffraction pattern that occurs you can determine what a structure is and what it’s made of.”

Price explained the three main areas the Kepert group and collaborators are interested in:

“One is the spin crossover. There are a number of materials that display what’s called bistability: exhibiting different spin states depending on the temperature or pressure.

“You can switch it ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on whether you’ve heated it up or cooled it down, and potentially can have data storage or display applications.”

“Another area is negative thermal expansion (NTE) where materials get smaller as you heat them up - which is counter to most materials we come into contact with.

And the third is gas storage.

“Until recently gas storage research was mostly aimed at storing hydrogen as a fuel source, but Professor Kepert is leading a team on a Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SEIF) grant titled 'Solving the Energy Waste Roadblock' to study carbon dioxide capture - which is important for tackling global warming.”

This team includes collaborators from the CSIRO, the University of Sydney, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, the University of Adelaide, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies.

“The grant will be interested in creating materials that will soak up carbon dioxide from flue gases on top of smoke stacks, from coal fired power stations in particular.”

The materials will use a combination of chemical and physical reactions – chemisorption and physisorption - to sorb carbon dioxide gas for storage, recycling or reusing.

When Price was struck with CFS, struggling sometimes to even get out of bed, he feared he may lose his research position.

Receiving the Laffan Fellowship meant he was able to return to the lab for at least another year and, with the help of a postdoctoral assistant, was able to complete research papers that were left unfinished when he fell ill.

“I may indeed have published more for that year than I have for other years.

“I also was able to hire someone to do a lot of the work that I could no longer physically do. With him working part time and myself part time, it was effectively like I wasn’t ill.

“The equity fellowships are possibly the best thing this university has ever done for equal opportunity for staff.

“In terms of my position I’ve got no recourse to the university other than that because I’m actually employed here through an Australian Research Council grant.

“So that was brilliant. Touch wood I’ll be here until I get better.”