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Mercedes Richards elected Councilor of American Astronomical Society

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04 June 2015

Mercedes RichardsMercedes Richards, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, has been elected as a Councilor of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). The AAS was founded in 1899 and is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America with over 7,000 members. Richards is one of three Councilors elected this year from among the membership of the AAS. She will serve a three-year term on the AAS Council, which is the governing body of the AAS and is responsible for the management of the affairs and property of the society.

Richards has been a member of the AAS since 1982.  She has served on several AAS committees including the AAS Nominating Committee (as chair), the Cannon Award Committee, and the Committee on the Status of Minorities. She is also a Harlow Shapley Visiting Lecturer for the AAS.

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 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 is 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.

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.

Richards received the American Physical Society's Woman Physicist Award for July 2013. In 2012, she was elected to a three-year team as 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. Richards was elected an Honorary Member of the Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Honor Society at the 2012 Quadrennial Congress of the society. Richards 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 received a Musgrave Gold Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for her accomplishments in the field of astronomy.

Richards is engaged actively 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, a collaborative effort with the Penn State Upward Bound Math and Science Program providing summer research opportunities to first-generation, economically-challenged students from Pennsylvania. 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.

Richards was a visiting professor at the Institute for Applied Mathematics at the University of Heidelberg, Germany for the 2013/2014 academic year. She served as assistant head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State from 2003 to 2008. 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.


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