By Mary Shelley-Snell
University of Tennessee doctoral student Conlan Burbrink was in Qatar for the duration of the 2022 World Cup. While there, he conducted research for the Department of Plant Sciences on turfgrass management to help the US, Canada and Mexico prepare to host the 2026 World Cup. Burbrink’s research focuses on how grass can be maintained over a prolonged time frame without an excess of natural light. This project was made possible through a partnership with FIFA that focuses on field consistency for the 2026 World Cup.
“It’s not just about mowing, but also fertilizing, weed management, and ensuring the turfgrass is safe for the athletes. The goal is for the athletes to step on the field and not even notice the condition of the grass,” he said. “We want to keep the field as consistent as possible so they can focus on the game.”
Burbrink’s interest in how different levels of sport around the world impact turfgrass management was fostered by John Sorochan, Distinguished Professor of Turfgrass Science and Management, and co-director for the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety. Sorochan arranged for Burbrink to intern abroad in London with the Surrey County Cricket Club at the Kia Oval Field as an undergraduate student. This combined with his experience working for UT athletics with women’s softball and soccer, interning with the Orlando City MLS team in 2018, working at the 2019 Cure collegiate football bowl game and at the 2019 Miami Super Bowl has created the opportunity for Burbrink to learn about the importance of keeping turfgrass healthy across multiple sports and at varying levels.
“The basics stay the same across sports, but each one still has its own specific needs so what you do changes day to day,” Burbrink said. “American football requires much more painting, whereas soccer is managing the entire two-acres of grass and thinking about how grass height impacts the speed of the game.”
Burbrink’s time in Qatar impacted him in several ways. “Getting to work with so many different people from many different backgrounds led to such cool cultural exchange. Because the World Cup is a huge event, I wasn’t just around Middle Eastern culture, but also people from all over the world,” he said. “It was such a melting pot of expats working the event, so it was just a great experience. The friend group that I formed there included people from at least ten different countries.”
His advice for students preparing to go abroad is to go into it with an open mind and be okay with being uncomfortable at first. “The most difficult part of the experience was navigating social customs initially, but it’s so important to get out of your comfort zone and try new things,” Burbrink said. “The best way to fight off feeling isolated is to try to meet new people and form new connections with people from other cultures.”
Following the completion of his bachelor’s degree at UT, Burbrink completed his master’s degree in agronomy at Texas A&M and has now returned to participate in Sorochan’s research project with FIFA. He feels that this project has the potential to impact any sport because it will improve mechanisms for growing turfgrass using LED grow light. “This was different from anything I’ve ever done research-wise. It was a lot of just learning about the expectations of the pitch for this level of sport so that we can be prepared for 2026,” Burbrink said. “I also had to start thinking about not just the science of sports field management, but the business of it as well since you’re collaborating with so many people that each require different things from the field.”
He acknowledged that international experiences are transformative, so it’s valuable for other UT students to have opportunities like the ones he’s had. “Being exposed to other perspectives and learning there can be multiple ways to approach something is a big life lesson,” he said. “If you don’t go abroad, you miss out on learning that there’s multiple ways to do things. It gives you a greater breadth for approaching problems that can be applied to research and academics, but also just how you approach life in general.” He emphasized that having this international experience on his resume is going to create opportunities for the future that he wouldn’t have otherwise had. Expanding his depth of knowledge and forming lifelong connections through global experiences like this one has prepared Burbrink to #GrowGlobal within his field.