Alumna Mary L. Gray Receives MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
November 1, 2020

Genius is rare. What’s even more rare? Being publicly declared a genius and given funding to pursue your creative and scholastic interests. Alumna Mary L. Gray (M.A., ’99), an anthropologist and media scholar, is in that unusual and fortunate position. She received a “Genius” grant from the James D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in early October and says she feels like she was given official license to stretch beyond the boundaries of her field — something she’s been doing most of her career.

The MacArthur Fellowship, given annually to about 20 to 30 individuals, is a “no strings attached” award of $625,000 that’s paid out over five years to recipients who have demonstrated exceptional creativity and show promise based on previous work. Gray, who currently studies the ways labor, identity and human rights are transformed by the digital economy, says she learned to cut her own path at San Francisco State University.

Supportive faculty encouraged her to seek mentorships outside of the Anthropology Department. “I was awakened to critical scholarship and I fused that with anthropology,” she said. “I learned I could pursue graduate school as a way of answering political questions, but in a scholarly way.”

She also credits faculty at San Francisco State with nurturing her curiosity, which resulted in her first published book. “In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth,” her master’s thesis, is a collection of oral histories of young Bay Area LGBTQ activists. That book laid the groundwork for her later thinking and research into how people, particularly marginalized groups, use digital technology.

Before SF State, a career in academia seemed out of reach. Gray’s grades as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, were poor, she admits. Her freshman year was challenging. She felt out of place and would have flunked out had she not discovered her two majors, anthropology and Native American studies. But that early college experience marred her transcripts, she says. Letters of recommendation from UC Davis faculty led to her admission at SF State. The graduate program at SF State helped her gain confidence. “I was coming out as queer. Moving to San Francisco seemed like the place to be an activist and to be fully myself,” she said.

After leaving SF State, Gray pursued a doctorate degree at the University of California, San Diego. She’s now a faculty member at Indiana University in Bloomington, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. She’s written books about the intersection of technology and community. “Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America” (2009) examines how queer youth in Appalachia use technology to find community. “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass” (2019) looks at the workforce behind the web.

The recent death of Gray’s mother, a longtime nurse, and the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a different focus: health care. Gray is part of a Pandemic Response Network launched by Duke University and is contemplating how to design technologies and information-sharing systems around health care workers who are community-based. “These could be aunties or retired people who want to contribute to taking care of the friends and family around them,” she said. “Right now, many of us don’t have a channel for providing that care. We all probably would like to be caring more for each other, and the chaos of the moment isn’t allowing us to contribute. ... It’s taking what I've learned through so many different paths and trying to bring it to this moment.”

— Jamie Oppenheim