Date September 7, 2021
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Mason Lee: Inspired by nature to create connected communities

The incoming first-year Brown student aims to combine interests in biotechnology, firefighting and fungi to build communities across U.S. states and fields of study.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — To many, exploring burned-down homes and growing oyster mushrooms near their charred remains might seem like a strange way to spend a final high-school summer. But for first-year Brown undergraduate Mason Lee, it was the exciting culmination of years of research.

When buildings are destroyed in wildfires, hazardous household waste seeps into the soil and is swept away in runoff, polluting the area with toxic materials. Working with a team of researchers at a nonprofit in Santa Cruz, California — halfway up the coast from his home in Los Angeles — Lee helped to mitigate the impact of pollution by developing a biofilter made of oyster mushrooms, which offers a safer, potentially cheaper alternative approach to environmental cleanup.

That project combined Lee’s various interests — ecology, firefighting, technology and mycology, the study of fungi — in a way that previous work in high school hadn’t. When he began to explore colleges, the opportunity for similar hands-on research that builds on his interests was near the top of his list.

“I was really drawn to the Open Curriculum at Brown, because I was unsure about how to combine all those different things that were pulling at me,” Lee said. “I wanted to find a way to explore that in a place that was collaborative, open, and really fostered a sense of freedom and responsibility in my own education.”

Lee’s first step in making use of the intellectual freedom that Brown affords was asking the University to defer his enrollment (a request that was granted) while he took a gap year to help fight wildfires in his native state as a volunteer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

We have to go into this year and look at our class as something that is a collaborative venture between all of us. Everyone in this class will be positioned to make a difference, because we are the next generation of leaders in this country.

Mason Lee Class of 2025
Mason Lee

As a handcrew member, Lee spent months on the ground with his squad, working in 24-hour shifts, removing the fuel — flammable vegetation and timber — that wildfires need to spread. It is grueling manual labor with a high risk potential; in the western U.S., Lee said that historically poor environmental practices have caused wildland fires to burn hotter and longer than ever before.

“There’s just a profundity of experiences you have when you’re on these fires, and you think that you could possibly get really injured or die,” Lee said. “That fostered a sense of urgency in my academics to address these issues.”

When his work with CALFIRE came to an end, Lee continued to develop his interests in a way that would have made Jack Kerouac proud — he and some friends fixed up an old RV and set off to travel the country, stopping in 37 states to go rock climbing, explore jazz clubs in New Orleans and visit Brown’s campus for the first time.

Lee said the trip was more than fun — it was inspiring. Over the course of his travels, he met fellow young scientists who were just as passionate about climate action and mycology; the enthusiasm they shared led him to create an open-source citizen science collective called Mycological Action Toward Sustainability (MATS), which is dedicated to investigating the intersections between community, technology and environmental preservation through mycology.

In developing MATS, Lee took his inspiration from nature. In a forest, he said, trees are not individuals; root systems connect one tree to another to aid in healthy growth. And in cases where their roots don’t reach far enough, a type of fungi called mycorrhizae produces a white filament — called a mycelial mat — that weaves itself into the cell walls of the root and makes the connections that the trees’ own root systems can’t. 

“We see everyone in our organization as a tree, and as trees, we’re all connected by the mycelial mat — that is, our research,” Lee said. “And we draw from our unique strengths in that way.”

Lee has few predictions on what his next four years at Brown will hold, but that’s part of why he’s so excited. 

“I hope to focus on what I find interesting, explore that niche deeply, then take that experience and refine it,” he said. “My goals will naturally progress with me, but I know that no matter what they are, Brown will allow me to keep fostering that love of learning.”

Whether it’s one made up of mycelial mats or one connected through the shared experience of starting courses at Brown, Lee encourages his fellow first-years to understand and exalt the importance of community. By supporting each other and making consistent, meaningful connections, they can better position themselves to make an impact on urgent issues.

“We have to go into this year and look at our class as something that is a collaborative venture between all of us,” he said. “Everyone in this class will be positioned to make a difference, because we are the next generation of leaders in this country.”