UC Davis Biology Researcher Killed by Rock Throwers in Ethiopia

A 30-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the University of California's plant biology department was killed in Ethiopia when the vehicle she was riding in was struck by rocks thrown by protesters.

The university said in a statement Wednesday that Sharon Gray was in the East African country for a meeting about her research when she was killed Tuesday while traveling in a car in the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. Her field of study was looking at the effects of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide on certain tomato roots.

There has been unrest in Ethiopa for months and is increasingly becoming a cause of international concern. But tensions came to a head on Sunday, two days before Gray was killed, when dozens of people were crushed in a stampede after police fired tear gas and rubber pellets to disperse an anti-government protest that grew out of a massive religious festival. The stampede occurred in Oromia, where demonstrators have been actively campaigning for wider freedoms.

During the Olympics, Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia crossed his wrists as he crossed the finish line in Rio to win a silver medal, showing his anti-government stance.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Ethiopia on Aug. 19, reminding tourists that "even demonstrations to be peaceful can can turn confrontational and escalate into violence."

The university chose to focus on Gray, a young woman pictured with a wide smile and lots of friends.

“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 earned her PhD in 2013 in plant biology and did her undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She had been doing her postdoctoral work as a researcher at the UC Davis Brady lab.

The university said what happened was unclear but spokesman Andy Fell confirmed to the the Sacramento Bee that Gray was the American the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia confirmed was killed in an area that has seen months of deadly protests.

UC Davis says another member of the plant biology department who was traveling with Gray was not injured in is headed home.

This is the first foreigner killed in the massive anti-government protests that have claimed the lives of hundreds of protesters since November 2015.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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