Prairie Woman of the Month: Dr. Sharon Gray

In science in particular, and in life in general, we meet wonderful people in our studies and our travels, become fast friends with shared passions, share adventures in sweaty soybean fields, late nights with LiCOR 6400s, long runs, and cold drinks - and then we fling ourselves to the far corners of the world to pursue our research. 

Sometimes we don't see each other for months or years, until the next conference, the next research trip, the rare vacation - but especially in science, I have always felt that these friendships transcend time and space and that when we meet again, it is as though no time has passed. 

This month, however, time has passed suddenly and irrevocably, and I will never meet my friend Sharon Gray again. I still can't quite comprehend the scope of this loss. Her smile, her pure joy, the exact way that she would crack a smile and make a joke when something slowed her down, the scientific research she was doing and the research she would have done, and the people who are left behind are all worse off without her. 

Sharon did her PhD with me at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There we often helped each other collect data for our respective research projects at the massive, collaborative field experiment, SoyFACE, which allows many different researchers to investigate their own interesting parts of the effects of different kinds of air pollution and environmental stresses on corn and soybean in an agronomic field setting that is open to natural conditions. While we worked together on many days, her research focus was primarily on how crop roots respond to stresses like drought, heat, and carbon dioxide and tropospheric ozone pollution. I, on the other hand, looked at how different soybean cultivars responded to some of these stresses, and together our work advanced the possibilities for improving agricultural productivity under highly stressful and variable climatic conditions, so that agriculture can continue to feed the world. 

When we finished our PhDs, we flung ourselves to the far corners of the world to pursue our separate research - me to South Africa to take a postdoctoral research position investigating the effects of these pollutants and environmental stresses on the native plants that make up pasturelands there, and Sharon took an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology at the University of California, Davis. There she continued her research on the effects of carbon dioxide air pollution, with a focus on development and cell type-specific gene expression of tomato roots. 


I knew her best as a collaborator and friend, but she was also treasured as a mentor and humanitarian. She never failed to encourage and work with students. She became a scientist not just because of her incredible intelligence and boundless curiosity, but because she was driven to make the world a better place, both on a personal and global scale. 

Earlier this month, Sharon and her current supervisor/collaborator traveled to Ethiopia to discuss a research project she planned to conduct with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and charitable organizations. While there, she and her supervisor met many Ethiopian scientists and collaborators, but one young scientist stood out to them in particular. Before even leaving the building, Sharon was already hatching plans to get her back to their lab at UC Davis for more training and collaboration. 

Before they could return home to put into action any of their plans for the research project for this young scientist, however, Sharon was killed by a rock thrown by unknown children while her group was traveling in a car in the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. 

Now, to preserve her legacy of mentorship, and hopefully bring this young scientist to the United States as Sharon had wanted, Sharon's family is raising money via GoFundMe to mentor women in science. "The mission of this current campaign is to make something positive out of this tragedy," Sharon's husband, and my dear grad school friend, Cody Markelz wrote for the GoFundMe site. 

For those who are interested in supporting Sharon's final endeavor, here is the memorial fund to make something positive, for science and for Ethiopia out of the tragedy which cut off her work there:  

If you are in Northern Illinois this Thanksgiving weekend, her brother is hosting a 5K run in her name on Saturday, November 26th at Millennium Park in Lindenhurst, IL. He states, and I agree 100% that "Sharon pushed us to be better in so many ways, but one of the most prevalent ways and the one stuck around the most was running. Sharon made us run." Proceeds from the run will be donated to the Sharon Gray Memorial Scholarship, listed above. 

To see more of Sharon's impact on all of us, there is a memorial for her from the institution at which we did our PhDs together here:

And there is a memorial for her from the institution where she was currently doing her postdoctoral research here: