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“Expect the Best, Plan For the Worst, and Prepare to Be Surprised”

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A quote by motivational speaker and writer Denis Waitley sums up the mindset prospective student-athletes should have when picking a school.

“Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”

Rising senior Jessica Sacco of the Lehigh women’s soccer team did plan for the worst and despite significant misfortune, is still making her mark on the Lehigh University community.

“In the recruiting process, I was always told to envision myself at a certain school if I couldn’t play anymore,” said Sacco. “I never thought that would be a reality, but I’m very happy at Lehigh. I’m doing everything that I’ve always wanted to do, and more that I didn’t even know was possible.”

Near the beginning of her sophomore year, Sacco suffered her latest concussion. It would ultimately mark the end of one chapter of her life, but also the beginning of another.

“I went to a lot of doctors over that winter break,” she said. “They said it was too soon to be sure, but I needed to start thinking about not being able to play again… start trying to come to terms with that fact.”

Sacco felt determined to make it back to the field, until approximately one year later when she realized it wasn’t possible.

“The summer going into my junior year, I continued going to doctors and went to concussion specialists and a neuropsychology doctor,” said Sacco. “They all basically told me the same thing; if you get hit again, you won’t be able to do what you want to do. You won’t be able to be a chemical engineer. There’s risk for later in life.”

Sacco’s goals off the field were too big to even consider taking any risk. Even after being forced to retire from soccer, she has remained active with the women’s soccer program as a student manager and coach.

“Jess has a level of perspective that is well beyond her years,” said Lehigh head coach Eric Lambinus. “She is incredibly mature and probably because of her injury situation, has the ability to see the big picture yet is still very connected to the team. Her role with the team has been to help bridge the gap (both ways) between the coaching staff and the current players. Jess really has the maturity and emotional intelligence to help connect the group. And it is no surprise that whatever we ask her to do, she does it beyond expectations.”

Sacco is still involved with the program, but a hole developed in her life, a hole that has been filled – even if just a little – by her academic interests. The Hamilton, New Jersey native chose Lehigh due in large part to its academic prowess, and that decision is paying off.

A chemical engineering major like her sister (who is currently working towards her doctorate at Vanderbilt), Sacco is in the midst of her second summer on campus conducting research through Lehigh University, having worked under Professors Mittal and Rangarajan.

“Last summer was about learning computational chemistry methods, learning how to use the computer to analyze the data I received,” said Sacco. “I worked on modeling the behavior of specific molecules in a given pore. I had to learn a lot of computer programming. The computer would come up with a probability distribution of the particulars and their behavior in a certain pore and from there, we used an analysis code. That’s where my research stopped last summer and that’s where graduate students are picking up this summer.”

In scientific terms, Sacco studied the effect of molecular shape and pore geometry on fluid adsorption behavior. In laymen’s terms, Sacco studied the effect of different substances when interacting. One example Sacco referenced was modeling density.

“We know we can fit 21 to 22 particles in this certain pore,” she said.

Sacco has worked extensively with covalent organic frameworks (or COFs), which are essentially structures. Some structures are known while some are not. With that in mind, Sacco’s research has continued this summer.

“Several covalent organic frameworks are already known and have been successfully synthesized (combined), physically, in the chemistry lab,” she said. “I am now working on coming up with a database of these known covalent organic frameworks, then using those properties to observe any patterns for how they’re synthesized or how they interact with each other – and how they can form these crystalline structures.”

This summer, Sacco has also been part of a Mountaintop project, applying her individual research to a team project focused on wastewater cleaning.

“Pollution and carbon footprint is a problem,” she said. “We’re trying to create an energy neutral or ideally, an energy net-positive system, where the energy we generate is as much or more than the energy required to run the plant. This would hopefully give industrial plants a monetary incentive to clean their wastewaters as the cleaning process could actually generate more usable energy for the company.

“One of the ideas that the professors have had is to take the waste coming in and somehow use a covalent organic framework, which is the material I’m researching right now. The wastewater would come in, go through its initial cleaning then we’d absorb the gases or the things that can be re-used as energy.”

Team members are using Sacco’s modeling of covalent organic frameworks to find an ideal material to use.

No matter the results of the research, Sacco is doing something she loves. When the opportunity to play the sport she loves was taken away from her, Sacco re-purposed her energy.

“It was extremely hard last year, when I was going through everything physical and not being able to play,” said Sacco. “Research gave me a route to do my own thing. My passion for research has grown, especially since it’s something I can do on my own while not being able to do what I’ve done my whole life (soccer).”

“In the recruiting process, we know as coaches that Lehigh University is one our biggest strengths,” said Lambinus. “Many exceptional student-athletes are drawn to Lehigh because it provides the perfect combination of Division I athletics and high academics. Student-athletes, like Jess, know that Lehigh provides endless opportunities and if one door closes, several others open.”

Today, Sacco’s concussion effects are relatively minimal, but there are a few symptoms that have lingered.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I can go day-to-day pretty well,” she said. “Sometimes, I still want to go work out. If I want to work out with my teammates, I’m okay right after, but later that night, I know I shouldn’t have done it because I get really bad exercise-induced migraines. They have been starting to get better, but I was told it might be a lasting thing.”

Thinking back to Waitley’s quote, Sacco did plan for the worst, but the other parts of the quotes are also true: “expect the best” and “prepare to be surprised.”

Sacco has experienced the best that Lehigh has to offer. She still got to play college soccer, even if only parts of two seasons. A byproduct of the experience has been developing meaningful relationships with players and coaches, people who have become family to her.

“The relationships are going to be the most important things I get out of my Lehigh experience and I still have them,” said Sacco. “Being on the sidelines have actually made my relationships with people stronger. I’ve grown such a good relationship with both of the coaches (Lambinus and Calabrese), and they’ve been so helpful throughout this situation.”

The last part of Waitley’s quote is, “prepare to be surprised.”

Soccer led Sacco her to a prestigious academic institution like Lehigh where she was surprised by all the opportunities she didn’t even know existed. Now, Sacco plans on applying to graduate school and following in her sister’s footsteps.

“Coming into Lehigh, I had assumed I would be done school in four years and that would be it,” she said. “Now that I’ve had this opportunity, just interacting with all my professors who have also gone to school beyond undergraduate, it has made me want to do the same.”

In the meantime, Sacco has another year at Lehigh remaining in 2018-19. She won’t be physically playing soccer, but the sport will always be in her DNA.

“Sometimes, I have dreams that I’m playing and wake up excited that we scored,” said Sacco. “This is always going to be a part of my life. I’m always going to think about the experience at Lehigh, on the field with my teammates. That will never go away.”

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