Mercedes Tharam Richards

Richards—Mercedes Tharam Richards, 60, on February 3, 2016, in Hershey, Pa. Mercedes was born on May 14, 1955, in Kingston, Jamaica, to Quaker parents Phyllis and Frank Davis. When she was a child, her family traveled widely. Multi-talented, she studied classical violin performance and music theory and had passed all but one of the examinations for a Royal School of Music licentiate before turning to physics. She was fluent in French; had working knowledge of German, Spanish, Slovak, and Czech; and wrote several volumes of poetry. She earned a bachelor’s (with special honors) in physics from University of the West Indies in 1977 and a master’s in space science from York University in Toronto in 1979. Continuing her studies, she married Donald Richards in 1980 and earned a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from University of Toronto in 1986.

She worked in computational astrophysics, stellar astrophysics, and exoplanets and was the first person to apply novel distance correlation statistical methods to large astronomical databases. Her career took her to University of North Carolina (1986–87), University of Virginia (1987–2002), and Pennsylvania State University, where she worked from 2002 until she retired. Passionately dedicated to students of all ages and classes, she founded and directed SEECoS, a high school science outreach program at Penn State. Her introductory astronomy classes were among the most popular on campus.

She visited North and Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, where she studied at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, the Institute for Advanced Study, Heidelberg University, Kitt Peak National Observatory, Teide Observatory, the Spanish National Observatory, Skalnaté Pleso and Lomnický štít in Slovakia, the South African Astronomical Observatory, and Ondrejov Observatory. She organized astronomy conferences in Australia and Slovakia, and was best known for her pioneering calculations of Doppler tomographs of interacting binary stars to simulate gas flow and predict magnetic activity. Mercedes received the Jamaica Institute’s Musgrave Medal in Gold in 2008 and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair Research award in 2010, which she used to research interacting binary stars at the Astronomical Institute of Slovakia. She was president of the International Astronomical Union Commission 42, councilor and Harlow Shapely lecturer of the American Astronomical Society, and member of the Caribbean Institute of Astronomy Board of Advisers.

She was a member of Friends meetings in Kingston (Jamaica), regularly visiting children’s hospitals with clothes and meals and good cheer; Toronto (Canada), coordinating the First-day School curriculum and visiting prisons; Charlottesville (Va.), serving on the marriage guidance and other committees; and State College (Pa.) Meeting, contributing to the local food bank.

Her bearing spoke dignity, and her eyes transmitted a keen intelligence, but her warm smile was embracing. She not only left an indelible mark in the scientific community, but also in the lives of others with her kindness, warmth, and humility. Mercedes was preceded in death by her father, Frank Davis Sr., and her sister, Yvonne Davis. She is survived by her husband, Donald Richards; two daughters, Chandra Richards and Suzanne Richards; her mother, Phyllis Davis; and a brother, Frank Davis.

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