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Footprints: Mercedes Tharam Richards - A star is dimmed

Published:Monday | February 15, 2016 | 11:16 PM
Mercedes Tharam Richards

Renowned Jamaica-born scientist in the field of astronomy, Professor Mercedes Tharam Richards, who once urged the Jamaican government to 'have a higher regard for science' has died. 

Richards, 60, died in the United States on February 3, leaving to mourn, her husband, Donald, and two daughters. 

Her death is the dimming of a 'star', who was determined to study the skies from her days as a Jamaican schoolgirl.

"The stars in Jamaica are really, really beautiful... My father and I would just sit outside and talk about life and philosophy under the canopy of the skies. More than anything else I wanted to understand what was going on. Why do stars shine?"

Richards remembers in a 2009 interview with Penn State University, where she was professor of astronomy and astrophysics.

Richards attended Providence Primary School, St Hugh's High and the University of the West Indies from where she graduated in 1977 with a bachelor of science degree in physics.

In 1986, she was awarded a doctor of philosophy degree in astronomy astrophysics from the University of Toronto, Canada. In 2001, she joined the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Penn State University and remained there for the rest of her career. 

Richards received numerous awards for her research, including a Fulbright Distinguished Chair Research award.

 In 2008, the Institute of Jamaica awarded her the Musgrave Medal in gold. She was only the 14th scientist to be so honoured at the time. She was the first astrophysicist to apply novel distance correlation statistical methods to large astronomical databases. 

"In Jamaica the cultural stuff - Bob Marley, dance, history -is perceived to be closer to people's lives than science," she explained. "Science is thought of as something that weird people do. I'm hoping kids will learn to see that science is something natural and positive," she said in her Musgrave acceptance speech. 

She was elected as an officer for numerous astronomical organisations, including as president of Commission 42 of the International Astronomical Union, councillor of the American Astronomical Society, and member of the Board of Advisers of the Caribbean Institute of Astronomy. 
A memorial service for Richards was held on Saturday in Pennsylvania. 

- Jovan Johnson