“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.”