University Park PA, 15 July 2013 -- Mercedes Richards, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, is being honored as the July 2013 Woman Physicist of the Month by the American Physical Society.
Richards studies close pairs of stars, called interacting binaries, which are pairs of stars that were formed at the same time, like twins, but in which each star matures at different rates and affects the evolution of its companion. Richards was lauded for her research on the dynamic interactions between close binary stars by the society's Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. In particular, the committee cited her research involving 2D and 3D Doppler tomography for measuring the flow of material between the stars in these paired systems, and her hydrodynamic simulations of the gas flowing between the paired stars.
Richards also was honored for her active engagement in outreach initiatives including teacher-training workshops and research programs for high school students. She is the founding director of the Summer Experience in Penn State's Eberly College of Science. Her outreach involvement also includes Penn State's AstroFest and AstroNight, which promote science literacy among a wide range of demographic groups in the community surrounding the University; and Exploration Day, a hands-on learning event designed for families. In addition to her research and outreach, Richards is a mentor and also an advocate for the promotion of young people, including women and other underrepresented groups, in physics and astronomy.
In her research, Richards collects and analyzes observations of gas flows between stars in close binary systems, then she uses the information to make computer models and movies to illustrate how these stars interact. She was the first astronomer to make both 2D and 3D images of the gravitational flow of gas between the stars in any interacting binary-star system.
She is a Harlow Shapley Visiting Lecturer of the American Astronomical Society. In 2012, she was elected to be president of the International Astronomical Union's Commission on Close Binary Stars after having served as vice-president of the commission from 2009 to 2012. At the 2012 Quadrennial Congress of the Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Honor Society, Richards was elected an Honorary Member of the society. She was honored in 2010 by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars with a Fulbright Distinguished Chair for research at the Astronomical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Slovakia. In 2008, she was honored by the Institute of Jamaica with a Musgrave Gold Medal for her accomplishments in the field of astronomy.
Richards organized and chaired the first joint international meeting between binary star specialists and astronomers who study planets beyond our solar system. This landmark International Astronomical Union symposium was held in Slovakia in 2011. She also edited the 600-page proceedings, published in 2012.
Before joining the Penn State faculty in fall 2002, Richards served on the faculty of the University of Virginia from 1987 to 2002, where she was promoted to the rank of professor in 1999. She was a visiting scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey from 2000 to 2001.
Richards received a doctoral degree from the University of Toronto in 1986, a master's degree in astronomy from York University in 1979, and a bachelor's degree in physics with special honors from the University of the West Indies in 1977.