NCUR Engineering Student Research Award Winners


Skylar Mackay '22 and Madyson Ashcraft '23 have received an Engineering Student Research Video Award in the 2022 National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR).

Skylar Mackay '22 & Madyson Ashcraft '23


  • Biology (B.A.)


  • Biology

What motivated you to pursue engineering?

Skylar Mackay: Engineering comes into play in every area of science and might be best termed a mindset: how can we make a certain method practical and economically viable? For our project, this came in the form of evaluating the efficiency of various cellulases on pre-treated hemp waste material to improve the extraction of fermentable sugars. The ultimate goal is to use this improved sugar yield to make ethanol a cheaper (and reusable) alternative to fossil fuels.

Madyson Ashcraft: I love to problem solve and apply math and science to real-world problems. This research project was just one example of that. I learned a lot from this project and it inspired me to continue researching in my field.

Tell us about your research project. Any interesting findings you’d like to share?

SM: One of our major findings was establishing a proof-of-concept: using a protein (e.g., bovine albumin serum) to improve enzyme efficiency by binding inhibitory compounds that naturally come from our pre-treatment of biomass. Ironically, the more you expose the plant material to facilitate the enzymes, the more inhibitory compounds are released; our project demonstrated one way to circumvent this issue. When I first spoke with Dr. Kim (the lead researcher and a Hood College professor), I was very fascinated by how our immediate project would integrate into this larger scientific dream. I believe that knowledge is important for its own sake, but there is definitely something beautiful about being part of a project with such direct relevance to society.

MA: Our research project focused on converting cellulosic waste material to glucose using acid pretreatment and cellulolytic enzymes for the purposes of biofuel production. I was able to use a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to capture the morphological changes that occurred in the cellulosic biomass due to the acid pretreatment; however, the breakdown of the cellulosic material released phenol compounds and lignin-derived molecules that inhibit enzymatic activity. We studied these inhibitors a lot and it was interesting to see how different enzyme loadings and the additions of Bovine Serum Albumin (BSA) were able to mitigate these inhibitors for successful glucose conversions.

How does it feel to have won the Engineering Student Research Video Award? What are you most proud of regarding your research project?

SM: I am most proud of really getting to apply my laboratory skills to a specific, meaningful project. Of course, students get exposed to techniques and methods during classes—but working with Dr. Kim truly gave me confidence through repetition and applying principles of experimental design. There is a huge mindset switch from doing something for a grade to doing something for a “real-world” scientific purpose. I am also extremely proud to make Dr. Kim so proud! I am so thankful for him (and Madyson and Rich, my lab partners) letting me join the project last winter. It is a great feeling to be a part of his published work and to get the Hood College name out there.

MA: I feel so proud to have won the Student Engineering Research Video Award, as well as being co-author of the publication that came from this research project. I had the pleasure of working with very skilled, great people during this experience and I am honored to have been given the chance to present at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR).

Why did you choose to study at Hood College? What has been your favorite part of your experiences here?

SM: It is a bit of a story… Originally, I signed up for a few classes as a non-degree student to fulfill some pre-medical requirements missing from my previous degree (surprisingly, international relations didn’t involve taking organic chemistry...). However, I soon found myself loving my Hood College classes and ended up pursuing a degree full-time! I liken the journey to a personal and academic “renaissance” and am so happy to be connected to Hood College. People often say this about small colleges like Hood, but it is absolutely true: the small class sizes and student-professor relationships make all the difference. There is not really a better way to learn than to have the ability to approach your teachers and have them actually know you on a personal level. Working with Dr. Kim for so many hours one-on-one (and getting fed lots of Korean chocolates) only exemplifies this gift.

MA: I chose to study at Hood College when I had my first visit on campus. Among the colleges I was interested in, Hood stood out the most because of their science department. There were a lot of research opportunities at Hood and in the Frederick community, and I was very interested in that. The professors at Hood really take the time to teach you and get to know you as a student.

Any exciting plans for the future?

SM: I am applying to medical school this summer! After graduation, I am very excited to begin working in Dr. Dom Esposito’s Protein Expression Laboratory at the Frederick National Laboratory (part of NIH/NCI). Specifically, I will be involved in characterizing the protein neurofibromin. I look forward to continue honing and improving the lab skills I learned at Hood College.

MA: I plan to go to medical school for my M.D./Ph.D. and continue scientific research.

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