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Discrimination Against Female Researchers Still Exists, Says Astronomer Shadia Habbal

/ 08 Mar 2022

Discrimination Against Female Researchers Still Exists, Says Astronomer Shadia Habbal

Influenced by the achievements of Marie Curie, the Syrian-born astronomer Shadia Habbal has been drawn to science since childhood. She excelled in science studies and went on to a career in astrophysics, where she has made many scientific contributions and become a prominent name.

Besides her research interests, she is also concerned with empowering women in higher education and scientific research, where she says discrimination against women still exists.

Habbal is now a professor of solar physics and chair of the Graduate Studies Department at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. In a Zoom interview, she talked to Al-Fanar Media about her studies and research experience in Syria, the United States, and elsewhere, and her concerns about the barriers that still hinder women’s careers in science.

Building an Academic Career

Early in the 1970s, Habbal graduated from Damascus University’s Faculty of Science before she joined the American University of Beirut to earn her master’s degree in physics. In 1973, she moved to the United States to pursue her studies, where she received her doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1977.

“The percentage of women specialised in mathematics, physics, and astronomy in the United States ranges between 10 and 20 percent. Mostly, women leave the profession after obtaining their Ph.D.”

Shadia Habbal  

After the doctorate, she spent a year at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research before moving to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where she remained for 20 years. She left for an appointment at the University of Wales, then came to the University of Hawaii in 2005.

Over the past 17 years, Habbal has focused on studying the solar wind sphere, how it develops and its impact on the Earth. Her most important research, she said, was in overthrow the prevailing perceptions of solar wind. She confirmed that the wind “comes from everywhere in the sun, and its speed depends on the magnetic nature of the different locations.”

The solar wind is a steady stream of particles that the sun releases across the solar system. On the importance of solar wind energy research, she explained that it is all about calculating the speed of these particles reaching the Earth, predicting their impact on satellites and electricity production plants, and avoiding their potential damage.

Since 1995, Habbal has led group of solar scientists known as the “Solar Wind Sherpas” who have traveled around the world to scientifically observe total solar eclipses. These eclipses provide a unique opportunity for observing the sun’s corona and studying solar wind phenomena.

In her career, Habbal won several awards  including the “NASA Group Achievement Award” in 2000; the “Adventurous Women Lecture Series Award” from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1998, and the “Pioneer Award” from the Arab Thought Organization in 2004.

Studying Astronomy at Arab Universities

Studying astronomy is rare in Arab universities, Habbal said, because of limited funding and a limited vision of these sciences.

There are some notable exceptions, particularly in the Gulf countries. (See a related article, “The Arab World’s Often Overlooked Space Research”.)

But for the most part, “Arab research institutions consider astronomy a useless luxury of no practical applications, unlike medicine and engineering,” Habbal said. “This explains the poor funding allocated to astronomy programmes in Arab universities, and the lack of students’ and educators’ interest in them.”

Habbal tried to promote the study of astronomy at the University of Damascus twice. In 1999, she suggested engaging Syrian researchers in her research team at the University of Hawaii. In 2008, she tried to introduce astronomy into the teaching curricula. Both attempts yielded nothing.

“Three main factors have helped me a lot in my work and social life: self-confidence, perseverance, and luck. Every researcher, or whoever strives to realise their dream, should make good use of their imagination and information, and never give up.”

Shadia Habbal  

“I felt a lack of interest from professors and students in these sciences, which they see as related to horoscopes and simple matters,” she said. “They did not realise that physics is one of the basic sciences in studying astronomy, and it plays a major role in any significant technological development we are witnessing today.”

Habbal believes that the best way to encourage the study of astronomy in the Arab region is for governments to support universities with more financial resources, and to launch awareness programs about the benefits of studying astronomy on many current issues, such as climate change. She also suggests offering scholarships for students to study these sciences at European and American universities.

Bias Against Women in Science

With the few female researchers in astronomy, both in the Arab world and in the United States, Habbal says she faced “great difficulties” because of bias against women in science. She had to overcome the mistaken belief that she, as a wife and a mother, would not be able to spend many hours on research work.

This notion was dispelled when Habbal provided an inspiring model in leading a research expedition to study a total solar eclipse in India in 1995. Since then, Habbal and the Solar Wind Sherpas have carried out 17 such studies, including an expedition to Antarctica last fall.

Yet discrimination against women in research “still exists, and is not limited to Arab women alone,” Habbal said.

Even in American research universities, she said, there are many obstacles for women in scientific research and a “mentality that still views women’s intelligence and abilities lower than those of men.”

She added: “The percentage of women specialised in mathematics, physics, and astronomy in the United States, for example, ranges between 10 and 20 percent. Mostly, women leave the profession after obtaining their Ph.D.”

Habbal links the small number of female researchers in astronomy, both in the Arab world and in the United States, with the “prevalent perceptions of males towards women.”

She believes that the range of talented researchers in science can be expanded through efforts to improve gender equality and encouraging girls to study science and math.

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Reflecting on her experience, Habbal said: “Three main factors have helped me a lot in my work and social life: self-confidence, perseverance, and luck. Every researcher, or whoever strives to realise their dream, should make good use of their imagination and information, and never give up.”

She concluded: “I consider myself very lucky, because my studies in astronomy helped me develop my way of thinking about many things in life in general.”

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام