by CARMEN SIERING
The MacArthur Fellows Program offers a $625,000 “genius grant” to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the potential for making future advances. The program is highly selective and rather secretive. It’s also kind of sneaky. The announcement is made each fall, but recipients find out they have joined the elite group only slightly sooner than the rest of the world.
Mary L. Gray, one of 21 winners in 2020, is an associate professor of informatics at the Indiana University Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering. She is the seventh winner from IU, and the first since 2003. Like most recipients, Gray was unaware of her selection. Fellows are recommended by a constantly changing pool of anonymous nominators and chosen by committee.
To set the stage, the director of the program contacted Gray and asked for a meeting to discuss an anthropologist being considering for the award. Due to her heavy research schedule, Gray says, “I was kind of put out and kind of envious. But I wanted to be a good citizen, so I put it on my schedule.”
When the call came, she was quickly told the whole thing was a ruse. “I kind of lost focus,” she laughingly admits. “I asked if they were considering me, and when they explained I had been selected, I just started swearing like a sailor.”
A California native, Gray, 51, did her field work in rural communities bordering Kentucky and came to IU when a job that was “a perfect fit” opened up in the former Department of Communication and Culture.
An anthropologist and media scholar by training, Gray’s work focuses on how everyday technologies transform the lives of two groups she cares deeply about: those who work in the world of contract labor and LGBTQ youth. She was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for “investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.”
She plans to use the award money to continue work she started as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It involves technologies and community health workers and building relationships of trust,” she says.
In addition to being a Luddy faculty member, Gray is a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.