Digital Explorer

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Alumni Profiles, Culture, Spring/Summer 2021

Mary Gray ’92 might have become a college dropout rather than a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient without the help of UC Davis faculty who nurtured her curiosity. Gray, an anthropologist and media scholar named a MacArthur Fellow last fall, said she felt adrift when she arrived at UC Davis in the late 1980s as a first-generation student from the Central Valley community of Clovis attending with the help of a Cal Grant. Her grades suffered. Then she encountered professors in two departments — William Davis and Meredith Small in anthropology, and Martha Macri, Inés Hernández-Ávila and the late David Risling in Native American studies. “Those faculty and these two departments had a profound impact on me,” said Gray, who double-majored in anthropology and Native American studies. “They showed me that there was a place and a method to ask questions that mattered to me — how and why do we become who we are? How do our identities and systems of power shape us?” Gray continues to explore those questions in her groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary research as a faculty member at Indiana University Bloomington, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. In October, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded her its $625,000, no-strings-attached award for her work investigating the ways in which labor, identity and human rights are transformed by the digital economy. She has written books on the invisible human workforce behind the web and the ways rural LGBQT youths use online spaces to find community. Gray said she found a “lifelong chosen family” among friends she made at UC Davis. “About 30 of us still gather for ‘Davis Thanksgiving’ the week before Thanksgiving Day — we celebrated this year over Zoom.”