Meet Mason Sufnarski

Mason Sufnarski was born in Albany, NY and moved with his family to Matthews, NC just three weeks later.  He is currently 17 years old, a senior in high school,  and living in Waxhaw, NC in Union County. He spends most of his downtime outdoors, recently traveling to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts. He also enjoys spending time with his two dogs and playing recreational basketball with his friends.  When Mason is indoors he likes to keep up to date with current events, especially relevant stories about the environment, technology, and space exploration.


Mason tightly associates his love for the outdoors with his passion for science and engineering.  Noting that his experiences in Scouts has really inspired him to engage with environmental science and engineering. While his interest in the outdoors is something he recalls throughout his whole life, he recalls a shift in his thinking in recent years to a more analytical approach to understanding the natural world.  He is especially interested in exploring problems imposed by humans as they interact with systems.

He credits his passion in part to his mother’s encouragement.  Mason’s mother is a 4th grade teacher and he recalls that she always has encouraged him to explore his interests, read a lot, and do mini-science fair kits and experiments at home. His passion for exploring ideas is not exclusive to STEM.  Mason also loves drawing, reading, and learning about the humanities and liberal arts too, which connects with his curiosity about humans interacting with nature. 

Mason describes himself as getting into science and engineering fairs “later” than many other students. In his sophomore year, during club week, he attended a meeting to learn about the STEM club which organizes members for fair participation. The idea of being able to do his own research captured his interest. The independence and investigation of things really spoke to him.

Mason’s first research project, A Demand for Sand: The Effectiveness of a Plastic Substitute in Concrete, was completed his 10th grade year. Inspired by a news story, his research focused on waste plastics collected on beaches that are difficult to be recycled.  His study focused on a way to repurpose waste plastics by replacing the sand in concrete with this previously unusable material in pellet form. His choice of sand was influenced by Mason’s father, an Environmental Engineer, who had recently told him of a global sand shortage. In the hopes of being able to work on two issues close to his heart, Mason tested the viability of substituting the sand in concrete with the waste plastic in the form of plastic pellets at an engineering lab in Charlotte.  His research showed that up to 15% substitution indicated an increase in the strength of the concrete. He was able to present his results at the science and engineering fair that year and fondly recalls how much he enjoyed seeing everyone’s projects and talking to all of the students. 

The following year, 11th grade, Mason continued his research on concrete and environmental sustainability, but shifted into the realm of microplastics with his project Rethinking Our Roads: The Ability of Porous Concrete to Reduce Surface Runoff of Tire Wear Particles (TWP).  This shift toward microplastics was influenced by research that Mason ran across while keeping up with environmental science news. An article from an international conference focused on environmental science introduced him to an emerging issue being reported from the treads wearing off of tires.  Mason summarized this by saying, 

“Every time a tire rotates it sheds some of its tread, which is partially synthetic, resulting in particles of microplastics in the runoff water (especially bad during flooding). The bioaccumulation of these particles impacts wildlife and natural ecosystems through 6PPD contamination. Particles that are really small can enter the water treatment system and affect human health.”   

This piqued his interest and led him to do a 2 part study.  Part 1 of his study investigated whether these particles are a local problem.  After data collection, Mason found tire wear particles in 5 of 6 samples taken from local impermeable surfaces.  With this information he moved into Part 2 which focused on the attempt to implement a solution. This design of his solution was informed by a news story about a group in the Netherlands using porous media to reduce local flooding. In watching this Mason wanted to test whether a variation of porous concrete can effectively reduce microparticles in the surface runoff. For his project Mason built a testing apparatus to test impermeable concrete and found that it could be effective in reducing runoff. These are the findings which he was able to share at the science and engineering fair in the Spring of 2021.  His next step in research will be an exploration to determine whether capturing the microplastics in porous concrete will impact the fidelity of the concrete over time.

In 2021 Mason’s research was presented in Region 6, where he earned the grand award and was promoted to the international level, earning him a place to present his research at the 2021 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Mason was excited about his promotion, but also a little disappointed to not get to go face to face as ISEF was held virtually this year. However he feels that Regeneron and the Society for Science did a really good job of hosting the large-scale, virtual event.  He especially appreciated the virtual platform that allowed researchers to customize their own avatars and walk around, talking to other participants and meeting people from other countries. In addition he enjoyed the user friendly project board, the video options, and watching the awards on the YouTube stream.  Mason’s Project won the following special awards at ISEF:  

First Award of $750 

Air Force Research Laboratory on behalf of the United States Air Force The Air Force Research Laboratory is a global technical enterprise, boasting some of the best and brightest leaders in the world. We are Revolutionary, Relevant, and Responsive to the Warfighter. We defend America by unleashing the unconquerable power of scientific and technical innovation. Our mission is leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. 

Award of $1,200

China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) is the largest organization of scientists and technologists in China. One of its missions is to promote public understanding of science. Having developed science education programs, CAST supports youth and adolescents in becoming citizens with high scientific literacy. CAST awards are given to the projects that best reflect the originality and innovation of the students’ work in all scientific disciplines.

Due to the COVID19 pandemic much of Mason’s experience with Science and engineering fairs has been virtual.  His first competition in February 2020, in Region 6, was face to face.  However when it came time for NCSEF in March of 2020, the event was cancelled due to the shutdown in North Carolina. 

In 2021 Mason was able to compete in the region 6 fair and in ISEF, both in virtual formats.  He feels that having a full year’s experience in virtual school left him well prepared and comfortable presenting virtually.  Not only did he have a standard Zoom competition uniform of a suit jacket on top and bright orange Clemson shorts (his sister attended Clemson), he also felt that verbal communication is one of his strengths and the virtual format provided a bit of an advantage to researchers who feel most comfortable speaking. 

He really enjoyed getting to know judges and learning about their research and interest. But also noted that having all the judges in one room (at the regional fair) made it a bit nerve wracking because you just have one shot, no time to revise and improve between judges.  

Overall Mason felt that the experience of seeing all of the organizations that are doing things and giving special awards and  a lot of people together who are interested in Science and Engineering was hopeful and inspiring.  

Over the past summer Mason was able to participate in a program through Duke University, engaging in a virtual Engineering class. He plans to continue his research this year and is considering researching additional applications of sustainable engineering. This school year he is starting the college application process, his plans include attending a four year college majoring in mechanical, civil, or environmental engineering.  In the long term he hopes to stay near North Carolina, at least remaining on the East Coast, but is open-minded as it relates to university location. 

We asked Mason if he had 1 piece of advice for a young person who is interested in Science or Engineering and he responded,

“Do something that you like and have a genuine interest in. Also do something that you think will have a legitimate impact on the world. It is a great motivator and you will find it easier to talk about/present.  Consider multiple fields as you do your background research to have more success.”