How cups of coffee lead to world leading research (Greg Dingle and Sam Grover)

La Trobe Sports Park | Photo courtesy of La Trobe University

What is it about a cup of coffee that can lead to a $48,000 research grant and world leading research?

The answer is that if that coffee is had at a university Early Career Researcher (ECR) event then, more likely than not, emerging researchers will be also talking for the first time with other researchers from outside their discipline where they have exchanged ideas and realised the linkages that exist between their seemingly disparate research interests.

The scenario described above actually happened in October 2015 when we – Dr Samantha Grover and Dr Greg Dingle – were chatting between sessions at the La Trobe University ECR Network Conference in the John Scott Meeting House.

We were there to give presentations on our latest research and explore the potential for collaborating with researchers from outside our disciplines. Sam is a soil scientist, and Greg is a social scientist specialising in sport management. In addition, Greg thinks that the opportunity to have a free lunch should never be missed!

Greg had given his presentation in the morning session with the curious topic of "major sport stadia and climate change". Over the lunch that followed, we had that coffee, and began chatting about our various research interests. As a soil scientist, Sam is naturally an expert with the natural world and how biogeochemical processes work. Sam’s research canvasses the potential of soil carbon, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture and native plant species, and even the impacts of fire on grasslands. This is important work as it expands human understanding of soils and plants, but also because it informs the science that underpins the management regimes in agriculture, and in natural eco-systems.

Greg, as a sport management researcher, is naturally an expert in…sport management! Organisational strategy, organisational culture, public policy for sport, sport events: all key facets of a global industry with importance across national boundaries, languages and a multiplicity of cultures! Greg’s research asks a fundamental question: what does climate change mean for sport? Medicine, engineering, economics and most other disciplines are asking this question, so why not sport?

During our conversation over our respective cups of coffee, the potential linkages between our research interests became apparent. As Sam said many months later, “I could tell straight away that our research interests were so complementary yet so different that this was a rare yet exciting opportunity to bring together our respective research work under the umbrella of climate change”. Sam was right. A lot of sport is played on plant-based playing surfaces. Think grass turf football and cricket fields, hockey fields, tennis courts, and horse-racing tracks. All of these sports facilities require curators who are experts in producing and maintaining high quality grass crops that, at a more fundamental level, are ecosystems. They are complex systems of soils, plants, water inputs, fertilisers, and biogeochemical processes such as microbial decomposition – all interacting to produce the high quality, safe, cost-effective and sport-specific surfaces.

An interesting, yet little understood, feature of the biogeochemical processes that underpin contemporary sports turf management is the potential for plant-based ecosystems to be sources and sinks of GHG emissions. Yes, plants and soil are both sources and sinks of GHG’s. In basic terms, plants and soil can either extract GHG’s from the atmosphere, or release them, depending on a range of variables (temperature, water availability, and fertilisers). In an era of climate change, Sam (as a soil scientist) was able to identify the linkage between sport and GHG emissions.

As the coffee progressed, an important question emerged. All at once, Sam said, “So, what are we going to do about it?” and Greg said, “Would you like to have another coffee?”

Sam and Greg began devising tentative research questions for a potential research project investigating the GHG emissions of grass turf sports fields. The project was cast as a pilot study to be conducted on a small scale, with a possible follow-up study to be conducted later…thing is, we had funding. Sam proposed other soil and plant scientists join the conversation, while a more senior sport management colleague was brought in to offer advice. Getting the right team was critical – Matt and Tony were really supportive. Tony suggested working with David. David suggested bring in Professor Ian.

A series of conversations then followed. It was unquestionably a leap of faith. We were a group of researchers who didn’t know each other that well, researchers from vastly different disciplines and methodological approaches. But the leap has been absolutely worth it.

A successful Sports, Exercise and Rehabilitation Research Focus Area grant for $48,000 followed, and our research was under way.

We have now have data, and results that challenge the conventional wisdom about sport and climate change. Our first paper has been submitted to the Science of the Total Environment journal. A second paper is in preparation based on a case study method. We’re now putting together an ARC Linkage Grant application to extend our research!

It is challenging., though, the research paradigms we share and don’t share - the challenge of multi-disciplinarity? We’re all busy. We’re still figuring out how to take our research forward.

The moral of the story? Our experience speaks to the value of ECR Network and RED events, and their capacity to stimulate multidisciplinary research. You just never know where a cup of coffee will lead you.

So, if you are still wondering about the power of coffee, go try one. Just make sure you do it at an ECR event!


Greg Dingle is a Lecturer in Sport Management in the Department of Management, Sport and Tourism in the La Trobe Business School, and an associate of the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University. Greg's expertise is in sport management, climate change, sport and environmental sustainability, and Education for Sustainability (EfS). He tweets from @gdingle1.

Sam Grover, based at RMIT University, is a soil chemist by training. She is particularly interested in integrating soil science with other disciplines to solve real world problems around climate change and sustainability. Her current research focuses on safeguarding the carbon stored in peatlands, with projects in Australia, Indonesia and China.