A Conversation with Mercedes Richards

Molly Levine, Research Unplugged intern
March 30, 2009

How did you first become interested in your specialty?

I attended an all-girls high school called St. Hugh's High School, in Kingston, Jamaica, and I had wonderful teachers who did not have any pre-conceived ideas about who I should become, so I was free to explore the world around me. By the age of 13, I had made up my mind to become an astronomer. I am still not sure how it all started, except that I remember visiting a planetarium in New York City when I was about 9 years old. In addition, my father and I would sit outside under the trees at night and we would just look up and I would marvel at the wonder of the skies. It really helped that I had very good math and science teachers in high school. As a child, my father and I took long walks through a nearby botanical zoo called Hope Gardens, where he would show me multiple varieties of plants. He used his training as a police detective to teach me about the differences between the varieties of plants, and that was my real start in science. My mother was an accountant and she taught me to pay attention to the details.

What is the most exciting or fascinating part of your job?

I love the feeling that I have inside me when I discover something new or learn something new. For my job, I teach and work on research projects, and I also serve on committees at the university, across the country, and internationally. I am passionate about every aspect of my job, so I am fortunate to get paid to do the things I enjoy.

What is your favorite aspect of working at Penn State?

I teach an introductory astronomy course called ASTRO 001 to large classes of 340 to 380 students each semester. I truly enjoy telling the students about all the topics that fascinate me. So this is my favorite aspect of working at Penn State.

Where do you see your field 10 years from now?

For the past 30 years, I have been studying pairs of stars called "binary stars" that are so close together that one star is stripping gas off its companion. I have been studying the flow of gas between the stars. This is exciting to me because we cannot see the separate stars from Earth when we look many of at these binaries, so it is even harder to see the gas flowing between the stars. My dream is to make pictures to show what is really happening in these systems.

In order to show the gas flowing in the binary, I have collected hundreds of spectra of these stars. I have used these spectra to illustrate the motions of the gas between the stars. When the gas is moving towards us, the spectrum is shifted to shorter wavelengths and when the gas is moving away from us, the spectrum is shifted to longer wavelengths. I use this information and a technique called tomography to make images of the gas flows. Tomography is used in medicine to make 3D CAT scans of the human body. I use the same principle in my work.

So, 10 years from now I expect that we will finally achieve this dream of mine to make direct pictures of gas flowing between stars instead of having to use indirect techniques like tomography.

When you're not working, how do you spend your free time?

I don't really have free time because I spend all of my time teaching, doing research, advising students, and serving on committees at Penn State, nationally, or internationally. In addition, I am deeply involved in outreach activities, and I have given many public lectures about my work at public schools, colleges, retirement communities, and libraries. I try to pass on the excitement of astronomy to as many people as possible. In addition, I travel to different universities to give public talks about my research as part of the Visiting Shapley Lecture program sponsored by the American Astronomical Society. After all these activities, I hardly have time to sleep or do my grocery shopping.


professor in gray jacket with painting behind her

Last Updated March 30, 2009