Prof. Mercedes T. Richards – Stellar Astronomer

Professor Mercedes Richards 

“It’s important to me that I can convey that sense of excitement to my students. I want them to realise it’s not just book learning, that there is a sense of adventure and a sense of discovery in every aspect of astronomy.” – Professor Mercedes T. Richards commenting on the importance of passion in teaching.

Profile

mercedes_richards star background.jpg
Professor Richards. Source: [3][11]
Name: Mercedes Tharam Richards (née Davis)

Life: 14/05/1955 – 03/02/2016 (65 years)

Born: Kingston, Jamaica

Degrees:

BSc Physics, University of the West Indies (1977)

MS Space Science, York University, Toronto (1979)

PhD Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto (1986)

Research Areas:

Binary Star SystemsCataclysmic Variables

Occupation: Researcher, Lecturer and Professor in Physics, Astronomy and Stellar Astrophysics.

A copy of her CV can be viewed online here: [14], or downloaded here: [Curriculum Vitae for MERCEDES T. RICHARDS][14]

[1][2][3][4][14]

Who was Professor Mercedes Richards?

MTR
Prof. Richards. Source: [9]
Professor Mercedes Richards was a lecturer, researcher and professor in physics and astronomy. Her research focused on binary star systems, specifically cataclysmic variable stars, and through this she modelled mass accretion to understand how mass transfer between two bodies occurs. [1][2]

Life

Prof. Richards grew up in a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica. Her father, Frank Davis, was a police detective; and her mother, Phyllis Davis, was an accountant, and she lived with them along with her two siblings, Frank and Yvonne. [1][2][3][4]

Richards attributes her love of science to her parents. Growing up she remembers sitting outside at night with her father under the stars, where they would talk about life and philosophy and that gave her the need to understand the heavens: she always wanted to know why the stars shone. Richards’ parents encouraged her to pursue her interests, and she states that her father nurtured her inquisitive side by giving her observational and deductive skills from trips to  nearby botanical gardens (where she learned to identify plants). As well as this, her mother taught her to be studious in her work, instilling the importance of precision in her research. [10]

She attended Providence Primary School and graduated in 1966 after which she went to St. Hugh’s High School. Throughout all of her education she would still spend her nights and early mornings looking at the stars with her father and in 6th grade she made the decision that she wanted to be an astronomer, which earned her the nickname “Mad Mercy!” from her friends and peers. [1][4]

In 1973 she graduated high school and then attended the University of the West Indies.  In interviews she states the importance of a nurturing community, crediting her friends and teachers for inspiring her to pursue a physics degree as both her primary and secondary school were segregated by gender – which gave her plenty of positive role models. She recalls that Having those female teachers gave me a boost,” and “As a young woman I could say, ‘Hey, I can be like them.’”  [1][2][3][4]

Professor Richards completed her BSc in physics graduating with Special Honours from the University of the West Indies and it was her pre-gained confidence and support from a positive home community that allowed her to complete her postgraduate studies and research at the University of York and the University of Toronto – a time she recalls being extremely difficult as the all-male and predominantly white faculties were tough on female students and students of colour. With Richards being a woman of colour it is implied that these effects were exacerbated. [1][10]

Nevertheless she persisted and gained a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics in 1986.

Additionally, during this time she would marry her fiancé Donald Richards (who is alive at time of writing and was a Professor of Statistics at Pennstate University) and together they would have two daughters; Chandra and Suzanne Richards. [1][4]

She remarked that she did not have a lot of free time between completing her studies and raising a family, but when she did find a moment to herself her hobbies include reading detective novels, writing poetry, playing the violin (she reportedly passed some exams at the British Royal School of Music), volunteering at food banks and she was also a linguist, being fluent in French as well as having a working knowledge of Spanish, Slovak, Czech and German. [1][4]

The wild west
Life in the Wild Wild West by Prof. Richards. Source: http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/AALibrary/doings/DDDoings_v17n2_1984.pdf

This poem can be downloaded here: [DDDoings_v17n2_1984]

Career

In the beginning of her career she was a visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina. After a year she moved to join the faculty of the University of Virginia as an assistant professor in 1987. Due to a consistently outstanding quality of  teaching and research on her part, she was promoted to an Associate Professor in 1993 and a full, tenured, Professor of Astronomy in 1999. [1][2][3][4]

In terms of her academic achievements, her childhood wonder shines through in her research, as Professor Richards’ research specialised in binary star systems.

Artist_s_impression_of_the_exotic_binary_star_system_AR_Scorpii
An artists impression of a binary star system. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_star

A video illustrating the evolution of a binary star system can be found here: [Link

A binary star system is simply an astronomical phenomenon where two stars are orbiting a shared centre of mass. Binary systems are not unique to stars; planets, asteroids, galaxies and black holes can also form binary systems and such systems have been observed.

Professor Richards work focused on close binary stars, two stars that formed at the same time but evolve and mature at different rates. Additionally, as these stars grow one can start to strip material off of the other, leading to an accretion disc forming and producing high energy bursts from the system. [1][9][10][11]

Interacting binary system
An interacting binary system. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cataclysmic_variable_star

Via her doctoral thesis she became the first person to use Doppler tomography to observe binary star systems as they moved in relation to the Earth. Tomography is the technique used for displaying a representation of a cross section through a solid object. Commonly it is used in medicine (examples are X-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans) but Richards was able to take this existing technology and apply it to her work in astronomy. Additionally, she created 2D and 3D models of these star systems to test her gas flow models between interacting stars. From this she was even able to show how gravity affects the system. [1][8][9]

She used hydrodynamic simulations, synthetic spectra and information from a long term radio flare survey to interpret and extract data/physical properties from numerous accretion phenomena in interacting binary systems. Furthermore, she introduced statistical distance correlation (a measure of how much two vectors rely on each other, with 0 being completely independent and 1 being entirely dependent) to large astrophysical databases of galaxy clusters. [1][4][8]

Prof. Richard’s work was exceptional even at the very beginning of her career. In her doctoral thesis she pioneered a new method to studying star systems and as a result she facilitated much of the current understanding of binary systems in modern astrophysics.

Outreach

Prof. Richards was dedicated to students of all ages and financial backgrounds. Her introductory astronomy classes were among the most popular on the course at Penn State and beyond this she was the founder and director of “Summer Experience in the Eberly College of Science” (SEECoS) – a high school outreach programme run at Penn state. [2][4][13][14, Page 27]

She had a love of travel and being multilingual she took her talents and visited many places across the globe, including North and Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. She was always concerned about the underdog and this was reflected in her teaching and in how she took the time, effort and money to facilitate the learning of those from underprivileged backgrounds. [1][2][4][14]

Death

All that is known is that Prof. Richards died due to complications from a chronic medical condition. She is survived by her husband and their two daughters. Her obituary states that contributions made in her honor to the Food Bank of State College are encouraged, the address of which being 1321 S. Atherton Street, State College, PA 16801. [1][2][4]

Awards bestowed on Prof. Richards

  • 2005: Elected Honorary Member of the National Honor Society of Phi Eta Sigma, Penn State University.
  • 2008: The Institute of Jamaica bestowed her the Musgrave Medal in Gold – its most important academic prize.
    • Prof. Richards was the 14th scientist to receive this honour.
  • 2009: Awarded the Award for Outstanding Achievement in Astronomy & Astrophysics at St. Hugh’s High School 110th anniversary.
  • 2010: Received the Fulbright Distinguished Chairs Research Scholar award to conduct research at the Astronomical Institute in Slovakia during the 2010-11 academic year.
  • 2012: Elected as an Honorary Member of the Physics Honor Society, Sigma Pi Sigma in the Quadrennial Congress, Orlando.
  • 2013: Awarded the American Physical Society Woman Physicist of the Month Award.

[1][2][4][6][7][14]

References:

References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercedes_Richards

[2]🗒️ – PennState University article – https://sites.psu.edu/astrowright/2016/02/04/mercedes-richards-1955-2016/

[3]🗒️ – National Society of Black Physicists tribute article – https://www.nsbp.org/nsbp-news/bhm-physics-profiles/2017-honorees/32-mercedes-richards

[4]🗒️ – Koch Funeral Home Obituary – https://kochfuneralhome.com/tribute/details/1159/Mercedes-Richards/obituary.html

[5]🗒️ – Pennstate University article. Prof. Richards named President of the International Astronomical Commission – https://news.psu.edu/story/145515/2012/10/17/academics/richards-named-president-international-astronomical-commission

[6]🗒️ – Pennstate University article. Prof. Richards receives Fulbright award – https://news.psu.edu/story/164343/2010/09/29/academics/mercedes-richards-receives-fulbright-award

[7]🗒️ – Pennstate University article. Prof Richards honoured as Woman Physicist of the Month by the American Physical Society http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2013-news/Richards7-2013

[8]🗒️ – American Astronomical Society Prof. Richards Candidate statement – https://aas.org/candidate-statement-mercedes-t-richards

[9]🗒️ – EurekaAlert.org article – https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/59092.php

[10]🗒️ – Pennstate University profile on Mercedes Richards – https://news.psu.edu/story/141653/2009/08/05/research/stellar-detective-profile-professor-mercedes-richards

[11]🗒️ – University of Toronto magazine article “Cosmic Twins” – https://magazine.utoronto.ca/people/alumni-donors/cosmic-twins-mercedes-richards-unpacks-an-astronomical-mystery/

[12]💻 – Penn State Research Communications YouTube channel: “On habitable places” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNxIo-YI0wI

[13]💻 – Mercedes Richards YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geowZuZcL7s

[14]🗒️ – Prof. Richard CV – http://docplayer.net/37460484-Curriculum-vitae-for-mercedes-t-richards.html

Authors Note: Professor Mercedes T. Richards came from humble beginnings, but with a supportive family who encouraged her scientific pursuits, and through working in an educational system that allowed her to progress into academia she went on to have an outstanding career. As stated in this article, she credits a lot of her success to her primary and secondary school – where she grew up with nurturing and positive role models – and this allowed her to continue in academia despite having to often face being the only woman of colour, only black person and only woman in the room. Her legacy continues to inspire many today and the brilliant work Prof. Richards has accomplished will be survived by those who work to encourage and help others from marginalised backgrounds succeed in STEM academia.

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Karel Green. For more information see the about page or follow her on Twitter @thisismeonline.

 

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