Faculty Profile: Shadia Rifai Habbal
by Bob Joseph
Shadia Rifai Habbal
Shadia Rifai Habbal arrived at the IfA in January 2005. Soon after her
arrival, she received a major research grant from the National Science
Foundation to pursue the study of the solar corona during total solar eclipses,
a research activity she started in 1995. Outgoing and productive, she immediately
injected new energy into an already-active Solar Group.
Habbal specializes in the study of the origin and evolution of the solar
wind, the stream of protons, electrons, alpha particles, and traces of
ionized heavier elements that flows outward from the Sun. The solar wind
shapes the tails of comets, creates the auroras seen near Earth's polar
regions, and alters the magnetic environments of planets in the solar system.
She also studies the enigmatic solar magnetic field, which seems to be
responsible for many things, including extremely high energy phenomena
such as solar flares.
Habbal will lead a group of IfA solar physicists on an expedition to observe
the March 29 total solar eclipse in Libya. The novel aspect of the eclipse
observations will be to combine imaging, spectroscopy, and polarimetry
to track the elusive coronal magnetic field and to search for the signature
of nanometer-size dust grains in the solar corona.
She was born in Damascus, Syria, and speaks fluent Arabic and French. She
comes from an academic family. Her mother was a teacher of languages. Her
father was a professor of education and psychology at the University of
Damascus, where she completed her undergraduate degree. She obtained a
master's degree in physics from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon,
and then came to the United States, where she received her PhD from the
University of Cincinnati in 1977. After a year at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, she moved to the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics, where she spent more than two decades. In 2000,
Habbal took up a chair at the Institute of Mathematical and Physical Sciences
of the University of Wales in Aberystwyth.
alpha particle: a positively charged particle
that is identical to the nucleus of a helium atom.
nanometer: one billionth of a meter.
polarimetry: the study of the polarization of
spectroscopy: the study of spectra to determine
the chemical composition and physical properties of molecules,
ions, and atoms.
Shortly after arriving at the IfA, Habbal flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,
to serve on the prestigious final selection committee for the King Faisal
International Prize in Science. In the year she has been in Hawaii, she
has had extended visits from three collaborators, and a new postdoctoral
research assistant, Huw Morgan, has joined her. Late last year, her IfA
colleagues honored her by electing her faculty chair, the head of the faculty
committee that advises the IfA director.
Habbal served as the editor for the space physics section of the Journal
of Geophysical Research from 2001 to 2005, and has received many honors
and awards. She was a finalist for the 2004 Asia Women of Achievement Award
of the United Kingdom.
Among the great loves of Habbal's life are music, art, and nature. She
regularly attends symphony and chamber music concerts, and she enjoys the
opera. She frequently visits art exhibits around Honolulu, and goes hiking.
She has two children, a daughter who lives in New York City and a son doing
graduate work at Caltech.