Casualty of chaos: UC Davis researcher killed while traveling in Ethiopia

Sharon Grey was working on environmental project when she became a victim of reported political unrest that has killed scores

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the October 13, 2016, issue.

A UC Davis researcher was killed in Ethiopia last week after the car she was traveling in was attacked on the outskirts of the African nation’s capital, Addis Ababa.

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa reported that a passenger van was hit by rocks thrown by “unknown individuals” in the late afternoon that October 4. One of the passengers, a U.S. citizen, was struck by a rock and died from her injury, according to the release.

Andy Fell, a UC Davis spokesman, confirmed that Sharon Gray, 30, was the U.S. citizen involved in the incident.

Gray, a post-doctoral research fellow at the university’s Brady Lab, was in the country for a meeting to discuss the next steps on a project she was involved in with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and other charitable organizations, according to a campuswide statement from Ken Burtis, interim provost and executive vice chancellor, and Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences.

“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,” they wrote.

Gray was traveling with Siobhan Brady, an associate professor who heads the Brady Lab, Fell said. Brady was uninjured and returning home.

Several media reports attributed the attack to anti-government protesters, and the area has seen months of massive and deadly protests since November 2015. The weekend before Gray’s death, at least 55 people were killed in a stampede as protesters clashed with law enforcement during a religious festival in the same region.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the details of the incident, citing respect for the privacy of Gray’s family. “We remain in close contact with local authorities and understand that they are investigating the tragic circumstances surrounding the death,” the spokesperson said on background via email.

Gray had been with Brady Lab since 2013, focusing her research on plants and their response to climate change, Fell said. She earned her bachelor’s degree in integrative biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as her Ph.D. in plant biology there. Post-doctoral fellowships are often the next step for graduates to develop their careers and become a professor, Fell said.

“She had tremendous promise,” Fell said. “It’s a tragedy and a great loss for the campus. Our condolences go to her family and friends.”

A memorial scholarship honoring Gray raised more than $46,000 as of Monday morning. The plant biology department’s website also posted a gallery sharing dozens of photos of her.

“We have been so lucky to have shared part of our lives with her,” Gray’s family wrote in a statement associated with the scholarship’s online campaign. “Sharon was a passionate scientist, friend, spouse, sister, daughter, aunt, godmother, and a colleague.”