Education

UC Davis scientist killed in Ethiopia had ‘bright future ahead of her’

Sharon Gray, a UC Davis postdoctoral researcher in the university's plant biology department, was killed Tuesday in Ethiopia when the vehicle she was riding in was stoned by protesters, university officials said.
Sharon Gray, a UC Davis postdoctoral researcher in the university's plant biology department, was killed Tuesday in Ethiopia when the vehicle she was riding in was stoned by protesters, university officials said. Brady Lab, Department of Plant Biology and Genome Center, University of California, Davis

The UC Davis postdoctoral researcher who was killed in Ethiopia on Tuesday was praised by colleagues, who said she had a bright future in her profession.

UC Davis officials said Wednesday that Sharon Gray, 30, died while riding in a vehicle that was stoned by protesters in the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Gray, who worked in the university’s plant biology department, was in the East African nation to attend a meeting related to her research, according to the university.

“It’s just really tragic,” said Andy Fell, a UC Davis spokesman. “This is somebody who is in the beginning of their career, the beginning of their life. She had lots of promise.”

Gray was traveling with Siobhan Brady, an associate professor of plant biology at UC Davis and head of the department’s Brady Lab, where Gray worked, Fell said. Brady was uninjured and headed home, he said.

Brady said in a statement Thursday that Gray had worked in her lab for the past three years, focusing on understanding plants and their response to climate change. The lab had recently started a project spearheaded by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, and the trip to Ethiopia was to attend a kickoff meeting with the group, she said.

The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Brady said. The private foundation, started by the Microsoft founder and his wife, aims to create healthier lives for people around the world and has done much of its work in Africa, addressing hunger and disease.

Gray’s research focused on the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on food crops such as soybeans and tomatoes.

“Sharon was a true expert in her field of root development and plant physiology,” Brady wrote. “She had a very bright future ahead of her, and I was sure she was to be a leader in plant biology and a wonderful mentor.”

“She had an infectious smile and giggle, a calm and patient nature, and she was truly committed to helping people through her studies of plant biology,” Brady wrote.

Savithramma Dinesh-Kumar, chairman of the plant biology department at UC Davis, said Gray was well-liked within the close-knit department. The news of her death came as a shock to him and to the researchers and students who worked alongside her, he said.

“The sad part was that she was trying to solve real-world problems,” Dinesh-Kumar said. “And these problems were current problems affecting Ethiopian farmers, African farmers, and, of course, the world.”

Fell said Gray had been working as a researcher for UC Davis since 2013. He said Gray’s husband is also a university employee. He could not be reached for comment.

Sarah O’Brien, a former co-worker of Gray’s who lives in Illinois, said the researcher grew up in the far northern suburbs of Chicago and was one of six children.

“She was really passionate about science and climate change,” O’Brien said. “She had demonstrated how much talent she had, and she had her whole career ahead of her.”

The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia issued a statement saying a passenger van was hit by rocks late Tuesday afternoon and that “one of the passengers, a U.S. citizen, was struck (in the head) by a rock and subsequently died from her injury,” several overseas media outlets reported. The embassy did not respond to requests for information.

Gray is the first foreigner killed in the massive anti-government protests that have claimed the lives of hundreds of protesters since November 2015. At least 55 were killed in a stampede last weekend when police tried to disrupt an anti-government protest.

The U.S. State Department, which is helping to return Gray’s body to her family, issued a travel alert for the country on Aug. 19, citing clashes between demonstrators and government authorities.

The university’s plant biology department posted a memorial page on its website Wednesday with dozens of photographs of Gray working in farm fields, hiking and relaxing with friends at www.plb.ucdavis.edu/sharongray.

“Even in tragedy, we hope that we all can find some comfort in the wonderful work Sharon was engaged in that will better the lives of so many around the world,” Ken Burtis, the university’s acting provost, said in a statement posted on the UC Davis Graduate Studies’ Facebook page.

Gray received her doctorate in plant biology in 2013 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which she also attended as an undergraduate. A Facebook post by the University of Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology said Gray studied in the institute’s global change program, examining how environmental change affected the genetic network in ecosystem metabolism.

“Sharon was a promising young scientist who was warmhearted, kind, and highly respected among her peers,” the post read.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets

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