We are in mourning at PSU astronomy. Our colleague Prof. Mercedes Richards died yesterday from complications of a chronic medical condition.
I first met Prof. Richards when I visited Penn State as prospective faculty. The interview was supposed to be about my exoplanet work, but we ended up talking about stars and stellar clusters. After I was hired, it was always a pleasure to stop by her office for her thoughts on stellar activity, stellar evolution, spectroscopy, and teaching. Her home in College Township is just a few doors down from ours, and the Richardses were always warm and welcoming neighbors.
Mercedes Tharam Davis was raised in Kingston, Jamaica, where her father, a police detective, and her mother, an accountant, taught her the power of deductive reasoning and care in one’s work. She received her BSc in Physics from the University of the West Indies before moving to Toronto, where she earned her MSc (at York) and PhD (U Toronto) in astronomy. She joined the faculty at the University of Virginia in 1987, and came to Penn State as a full Professor in 2002.
Prof. Richards is especially well known for her pioneering work in tomography of binary star systems and CVs. By strutinizing spectroscopic and photometric time series of stars and compact objects in close orbit, Prof. Richards could create three-dimensional “movies” of mass-exchange systems, answering important questions about how mass transfer occurs.
Her research has been recognized with a Fullbright Distinguished Chair, and the Musgrave Medal. The latter has been awarded occasionally by the Institute of Jamaica for over 100 years for achievement in art, science, or literature; Prof. Richards was just the 14th scientist to be so honored.
Prof. Richards’s service to the profession is exemplary. She served as President of IAU Commission 42, a Councillor of the AAS, and organized numerous international conferences. She served as our assistant department head from 2003-2008.
Prof. Richards’s dedication to students of all ages is well known. Her introductory astronomy class was one of the most popular on campus. She was a founder and director of SEECoS, a high school science outreach program of Penn State, and a Harlow Shapely Lecturer for the AAS.
I’m going to miss Dr. Richards; she has served as a role model educator, researcher, and scientist for me since my arrival.
Prof. Richards is survived by her husband Donald, who is a professor of statistics at Penn State and occasional co-author with her, and two daughters, Chandra and Suzanne. They have always been joyful presences at department events, and our hearts and thoughts are with them today.