The right chemistry: Graduate school and NFL cheerleading squad

Video courtesy of Titans All Access


Jessica Haley thinks stereotypes are seldom accurate.

This is Haley’s third season as a National Football League cheerleader for the Tennessee Titans, and she’s a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Vanderbilt.

“If you have a genuine interest in a subject or a career, don’t allow society’s oversimplified idea of who you are or what you should do deter you from pursuing it,” said the Jacksonville, Fla. native who plans to enter industry after graduation and eventually become a university professor.

“I have always enjoyed math and science; applying them to real world applications is just a plus. I like the challenging, diverse, analytical field of engineering. I don’t know if any other field would offer me as much satisfaction,” she said.

Vanderbilt suits her, too. She earned both a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in environmental engineering here in four years.

Returning to chemical engineering to earn a doctoral degree, Haley works in modeling and simulations, specifically with an equation of state called the Statistical Associating Fluid Theory, or SAFT equation. “The SAFT equation provides a mathematical relationship between two or more properties (states) of a particular chemical,” Haley said.

SAFT is a commonly used molecular-based equation of state that has been successfully applied to study a wide range of fluid systems. This approach, rooted in sophisticated theory, takes into account the effects on fluid properties of the shape and size of the molecules in the fluid and the forces between them. The equation has been shown to provide an excellent description of many facets of the behavior of pure fluids and their mixtures, with a minimal reliance on laborious fitting of the model parameters to experimental data.

Haley’s work is specifically focused on developing a version of SAFT that can be applied to “green” chemicals, such as ionic liquids and the products of ethanol production from biomass. Use of biomass like corn and switchgrass for fuels requires the separation of the fuel, or alcohol, from the other chemicals (mostly water, which is very energy intensive). So, alternative separation methods are needed. Using SAFT, alternatives can be explored before committing to costly experiments.

Joining others, giving back

Haley says she decided to try out for NFL Cheerleading because she was excited about the possibility of joining a group of women who are making major moves in their own lives while also giving back to the community.

NFL Cheerleading is a professional organization in the United States. The Titans are one of 27 (of 32) NFL teams to include a cheerleading squad in their franchise. Most squads are part-time jobs and members often are university students or recent graduates who continue on to other careers after cheering for one to four seasons, according to online information.

Attending a Methods in Molecular Simulation Summer School at Cardiff University, Wales was thrilling, but chemical engineering Ph.D. student Jessica Haley says she'll remember the 2011 Titans v. Jaguars opener - her first professional game - for the rest of her life. (Photos/Tennessee Titans)

Squad members participate in practice, training camp, games, appearances, photo shoots and charity events. The Titans squad – 27 cheerleaders – often visit local schools and hospitals.

Haley was interested in science, math and engineering long before cheerleading, however.

“Since elementary school I have always enjoyed participating in science fair and math competitions. I spent my free time searching for competitions or science groups to join,” she said.

“One of my best experiences was attending a Methods in Molecular Simulation Summer School at Cardiff University in Wales. I was thrilled to be granted this opportunity,” Jessica said. “I am always excited about learning new things and meeting new people, and this experience allowed me to do both.”

“There was a vast amount of invaluable information to master in a short period of time, however, the experience was enlightening and very advantageous for my research,” Jessica said.

A rival experience was cheering at her first professional game — Titans v. Jaguars in the 2011 season. “Wow. It was so exciting just being a part of it! The fans, 70,000 or more strong, the teams, the intense and fast-paced game – this was a great personal experience. I can assure you I will remember it for the rest of my life.”