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Mercedes Richards Receives Musgrave Gold Medal

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03 November 2008

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Mercedes Richards

Mercedes Richards, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, has been awarded a Musgrave Gold Medal by the Institute of Jamaica for her accomplishments in the field of astronomy. The institute was founded in 1879 by Sir Anthony Musgrave to encourage achievements in literature, science, and art. The medal, which is given to recipients who have attained international recognition in their particular field, is the highest academic honor awarded by the Government of Jamaica, the country where Richards was born. Since 1941, only 15 of the institute's gold medals have been awarded to scientists.

"It is certainly a great feeling to be honored by the country where I was born and spent the first twenty-two years of my life," said Richards. "I am grateful to my parents, Frank and Phyllis Davis, for instilling in me an appreciation of math and science from an early age."

The Musgrave awards ceremony was held this fall at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston, Jamaica. Top government officials and ambassadors were present at the event, including the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica. During her visit, Richards gave three lectures, including one at the Institute of Jamaica Youth Centre and two at the University of the West Indies. "The most fulfilling day of my visit was the time I spent with the school children," said Richards. "Students from my elementary and high schools were invited to my lecture titled, "Dream the Impossible Dream: My Journey to the Stars." The students sang for me and made me cry, which made my lecture very special."

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Richards2Large11-2008.jpg

Mercedes Richards with students from the New Providence Primary School in Jamaica.

Richards studies binary stars, which are pairs of stars that were formed at the same time, like twins. Although these pairs have the same age, the stars mature at different rates. In close pairs, called interacting binaries, each star affects the evolution of its companion. Richards collects and analyzes observations of gas flows between stars in close binary systems. She also makes computer models and movies that show how these stars interact. Richards was the first astronomer to make images of the gravitational flow of gas between the stars in any interacting binary. "No one else had done this before because it was not possible to get a direct image of the gas flowing between stars using a regular camera on any telescope. These systems are just too distant to be resolved by even the largest optical telescopes. So I used an indirect approach, called tomography, to show what is happening between the stars," said Richards.

Click on image for high-resolution file.

Richards3Large11-2008.jpg
Richards3Large11-2008.jpg

 

Mercedes Richards with students from the New Providence Primary School in Jamaica.

While tomography has been used extensively in medicine, geophysics, and archeology, Richards was the first astronomer to apply this technique to the study of
a special class of binary stars, called Algol Binaries, in which the gas stream flows directly from one star
and hits the surface of its companion star. Richards also was the first astronomer to make theoretical hydrodynamic simulations of this special class of binaries.

Richards has participated in math and science enrichment programs for high-school students in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Toronto. She was a member of the teaching faculty during a month-long international Vatican Observatory Summer School for graduate students in 1999. She currently is the chair of the Nominating Committee for the American Astronomical Society.

Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in fall 2002, Richards served on the faculty of the University of Virginia from 1987 to 2002 and was appointed to the rank of professor in 1999. She was a visiting scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey during the 2000-2001 academic year. Richards earned her doctoral degree in astronomy at the University of Toronto in 1986, her master's degree in astronomy at York University in Toronto in 1979, and her bachelor's degree in physics at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1977.

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CONTACTS
Mercedes Richards: (+1) 814-865-0150, mtr11@psu.edu
Barbara Kennedy (PIO): (+1) 814-863-682, science@psu.edu

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