This is a story of loss and promise — the loss of a UC Davis researcher, Sharon Gray, and the promise of other female scientists who have her legacy as a source of support.

Young women like Sara Gebremeskel of Ethiopia, who recently had a three-month internship at UC Davis, after having met Sharon in October 2016 at the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research. Sharon was in Ethiopia to assist in the launch of a research project; she was a postdoc, working with Siobhan Brady, associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology.

During that visit, Gray and Brady were riding in a car on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, when a rock crashed through a window, striking and killing Gray. The Netherlands Institute of Ecology, which leads the project that brought the scientists to Ethiopia, attributed Gray’s death to a random act of a few young individuals throwing stones at passing vehicles.

Sharon Gray portrait

Sharon in a Costa Rican cloud forest, photographed by her husband, on their honeymoon.

“I knew Sharon for only two days,” said Sara, a research assistant at the National Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center, part of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research. “She was easy-going, always smiling, and so energetic and passionate about science like I am, so we got along together very well.”

Sharon was 30 and Sara was 29. “Maybe that helped us to communicate easily,” Sara said. “She was asking me a lot of questions, and I was, too. She asked me if I wanted to do my Ph.D., the activities I am involved in, my future ambitions. During our tour in the lab, I was telling them the gaps we have, especially on the technical part.”

Sharon saw promise in Sara and was determined to bring her to UC Davis for training.

Scientific exchange

Sharon’s husband, R.J. Cody Markelz, a postdoc in another plant biology lab at UC Davis, set the wheels in motion when he established a GoFundMe account in his wife’s memory. “The mission of this current campaign is to make something positive out of this tragedy,” he wrote on the fundraising site, describing “Sharon’s idea of bringing a young female Ethiopian researcher to UC Davis for a scientific exchange.”

Smiling Sharon Gray in lab

Happy in her work: Sharon in the lab.

Tracy Raines, principal investigator with AgBiome USA, who was with Sharon in Ethiopia, filled in the details: “When we visited the labs … she was so excited to come back to help train the scientists and to help them use the equipment to which they had access, but were not knowledgeable on using.”

Soon Sharon began talking about bringing Sara to UC Davis. “When we left, she gave Sara her contact information, a hug and some kisses on the cheeks,” Raines wrote. “She saw the eagerness to learn in Sara and that the environment was the only restriction to her education, something she really wanted to help alleviate.”

Donations poured in — from UC Davis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Sharon did her undergraduate work and received her Ph.D.; and from around the world — honoring Sharon and her dream for Sara. The GoFundMe account quickly amassed more than $100,000.

Spirit of mentoring lives on

Now, a year after Sharon’s death, we can report total contributions of nearly $160,000, all of which has been allocated: to endowed scholarships at UC Davis and the University of Illinois; to a travel award fund at the American Society of Plant Biologists, to enable participation by young female investigators in ASPB meetings; and to help pay for Sara’s internship.

Dealing with all of this, setting everything up, was a difficult task for Markelz on the one hand, but easy on the other, “because it was fulfilling something Sharon wanted” — to assist young women, primarily, in science.

“I just decided that every day I would do something emotionally difficult … rather than putting it off,” he said, knowing that ultimately Sharon’s spirit of mentoring would live on. Read more about Sharon’s mentoring.

Markelz and Brady worked together to apply for university funds for the exchange program, garnering support from the Office of Global Affairs, College of Biological Sciences, Department of Plant Biology and the Genome Center. The funding is sufficient to bring one more Ethiopian to UC Davis in the next six months.

“Through these types of collaborations,” Brady said, “we can pass on the education and knowledge that Sharon wished to share, and forge stronger connections with Ethiopian scientists as well as understand the problems that they face there.”

‘Beautiful and yet bittersweet’

“Sara’s visit fulfilled one of Sharon’s last wishes,” Brady said. “It is hard to find the words to adequately express the meaning of this to myself, to my family and to the lab.

“Please only be assured that it gave me some solace, that it was beautiful and yet bittersweet to see Sharon’s dream come true, but to not have Sharon here to see it.”

Sara on a bike ride in Davis.

Such emotion extended to Sharon’s home state of Illinois, where Sara ventured on her own one weekend, describing it as “the beautiful part of my stay in the U.S.” — meeting Sharon’s family.

“They invited me over there to meet them. At first it was scary to think of facing her family, ’specially her mum. But it was something that I really wanted to do.

“I don’t have words to express how lucky I am to meet a godly family like them. They embraced me like I am part of the family. … It was so good to know Sharon more, her childhood, who she was, her family, her personality and much more.”

The Gray family is “a model for forgiveness,” Sara said. “They went out of their way … to bring a positive thing out of the bad situation. It should be a lesson for this cruel world filled with revenge and selfish acts.”

As for Markelz, his fellowship ended in May, and he has started a bioinformatics company, Rev Genomics, “a big data company operating in the plant biotechnology space.” He said he is heartened to know his wife is still contributing to science, even though she is no longer physically here. “A legacy is a powerful thing,” he said.

Applying to grad school in the U.S.

Sara, who did her undergraduate work at Wolaita Sodo University in her home country and earned a master’s degree from Pan African University of Life and Earth Science (Ibadan, Nigeria), said: “Meeting Sharon indeed changed my life. She saw something that I didn’t see in myself. She made me believe in myself.”

Indeed, when previously considering graduate school, she thought U.S. universities would be “too much for me.” Now, she said, with the knowledge, experience and confidence she gained at UC Davis, she has changed her mind and is now looking at graduate education in the United States.

“In Ethiopia, we have good research centers with bunches of researchers, but there are only few people that are trained on analyzing the data generated. I am interested in bridging that gap and training others.”

With her recent visit she already provided an education for Brady and others at UC Davis. “Through Sara, I learned about the challenges that face Ethiopians and their families, as well as the strong bond of family and your home and ancestral lands,” Brady said. “I learned about the sacrifices that families need to make to feed themselves and that education can often come necessarily second.”

All the more reason Brady is happy to continue her work on the project that Sharon had been a part of — research into eradicating Striga, a parasitic weed, from Ethiopia’s sorghum crop.

Officially, the project is called Promoting Root Microbes for Integrated Striga Eradication. The acronym is, appropriately, PROMISE — as if the lead researchers had Sharon and Sara in mind when they named it.

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Twitter.