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Faculty Profile: Shadia Rifai Habbal

by Bob Joseph

Shadia Habbal

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.


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 light.

spectroscopy: the study of spectra to determine the chemical composition and physical properties of molecules, ions, and atoms.

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.

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.