UNE research crystallises into Swedish Academy award

Published 04 December 2012

An Australian crystallographer has been honoured by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for work he began while a Professor of Chemistry at the University of New England.

Professor Mark Spackman is the first Australian to be awarded the Academy’s Gregori Aminoff Prize in Crystallography. He shares the award with Dr Carlo Gatti from the Italian National Research Council “for developing experimental and theoretical methods to study electron density in crystals, and using them to determine molecular and crystalline properties”.

Working with colleagues and students over the past 16 years, Professor Spackman devised and implemented a new scheme for partitioning crystal space into molecular and atomic volumes limited by surfaces that reflect the nature and strength of inter-atomic and inter-molecular interactions. This analysis has come into general use with the advent of CrystalExplorer, a software tool for crystal engineering that Professor Spackman and his colleagues developed. CrystalExplorer is now used by researchers around the world to analyse crystal structures.

Motivated primarily by his appreciation of what he calls the “inherent beauty” of such structures, Professor Spackman’s work on the project – initially unfunded – began at UNE in 1996. It did, however, attract the interest of a UNE Honours student – Joshua McKinnon – who went on to complete a PhD project at UNE developing the ideas further. The 2004 publication that emerged from that research has been cited more than 200 times.

In 1999 the project won – through UNE – an Australian Research Council (ARC) Small Grant of $28,000, and five years later the ARC awarded Professor Spackman a five-year Australian Professorial Fellowship to enable him to pursue his research full-time. He moved to the University of Western Australia in late 2004, and Dr McKinnon joined his group as a postdoctoral researcher the following year.

“The Aminoff Prize has been awarded since 1979 and has had some eminent recipients – including many pioneering crystallographers and a Nobel Laureate,” Professor Spackman said. “To be included among them is very humbling.

“Given the novelty of our work, this award is a testament to the importance of perseverance in scientific research, and belief in the worth of what you do – even if you struggle to attract funding for very many years.”

He said he was particularly delighted that one criterion of the award was that “some preference should be shown for work evincing elegance in the approach to the problem”.