Mercedes Richards Receives Fulbright Award

September 29, 2010

Mercedes Richards, a Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics, has received a Fulbright Distinguished Chairs Research Scholar award to conduct research at the Astronomical Institute in Slovakia during the 2010-11 academic year. According to the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, Richards is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2010-2011.

Richards' proposed project, "Modeling Interacting Binary Stars at the Astronomical Institute in Slovakia," will augment an active research collaboration with Ján Budaj, a member of the Astronomical Institute in Slovakia. During her three-month stay in Slovakia, Richards will use spectroscopic analysis, hydrodynamic simulations and tomography to visualize and model the gas flowing between stars in interacting binary-star systems. In addition, Richards is the chair of the scientific organizing committee for an international symposium on the modeling tools used for the study of binary stars and exoplanets -- planets outside of our solar system -- which will be held in Slovakia during her time abroad.

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.

Richards's previous awards include a Musgrave Gold Medal from the Institute of Jamaica for her accomplishments in the field of astronomy. She has participated in math and science enrichment programs for high-school students in Pennsylvania, California, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Toronto. She was a member of the teaching faculty during a month-long Vatican Observatory Summer School for graduate students in 1999. She is the past chair of the nominating committee for the American Astronomical Society, and she is currently the vice president for Commission 42 of the International Astronomical Union.

Before 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.


The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The primary source of funding for the Fulbright Program is an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations and foundations in foreign countries and in the United States also provide direct and indirect support. Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields. The Program operates in over 155 countries worldwide.

Since its establishment in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program has given approximately 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists, and scientists the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Fulbright alumni have achieved distinction in government, science, the arts, business, philanthropy, education, and athletics. Forty Fulbright alumni from 11 countries have been awarded the Nobel Prize, and 75 alumni have received Pulitzer Prizes. Prominent Fulbright alumni include: Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director and Founder, Grameen Bank, and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient; John Atta Mills, President of Ghana; Lee Evans, Olympic Gold Medalist; Ruth Simmons, President, Brown University; Riccardo Giacconi, Physicist and 2002 Nobel Laureate; Amar Gopal Bose, Chairman and Founder, Bose Corporation; Renee Fleming, soprano; Gish Jen, Writer; and Daniel Libeskind, Architect.

Fulbright recipients are among over 40,000 individuals participating in U.S. Department of State exchange programs each year. For more than sixty years, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has funded and supported programs that seek to promote mutual understanding and respect between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is administered by the Institute of International Education.

for more information, contact Richards at 814-865-0150 or

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Last Updated January 09, 2015