Abdou Lachgar: Chemistry

Abdou Lachgar jovially peers into a lab, offering his graduate students coffee and kindly asking about their drives to campus on that icy morning. For the warm and friendly chemistry professor, the corridors of Salem Hall are far from his home country of Morocco. At 17 years old, he left Morocco for France, where he received his bachelors and doctoral degrees at the Institute of Materials Jean Rouxel at the University of Nantes. Lachgar, who initially planned on attending medical school, found that Moroccan universities didn’t provide him with the education he desired.

Meenu Krishnan/Old Gold & Black 57

Meenu Krishnan/Old Gold & Black 57

“At that time, Morocco’s few universities were very crowded. I used to go to class at 6 a.m. to save seats for my friends,” Lachgar said. “I left for France to discover new cultures and educational possibilities.”

While in France, Lachgar, who speaks French, Arabic, German and English, met his future wife, one of “the most beautiful gifts France has given me,” Lachgar said. In 1988, he left for America, at that time without a firm grasp of English, where he became a Postdoctoral Fellow at the DOA Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University. “I learned a lot about the United States in the heartland of America, Lachgar said. “There’s a freedom of choice here.”

While in Seattle, as a research associate and instructor at the University of Washington, one of Lachgar’s advisers urged him to apply for a proper teaching position at a university. “I had a reaction of disbelief when he suggested this,” he said. “I was very nervous about teaching college classes without a strong command of the English language.”

In reality, however, Lachgar’s path to teaching had begun years previously. As the oldest child in his household, he helped his brother and sister to succeed in school. His father had attended Qur’anic school (Islamic studies), and his mother’s highest degree equivalent was fifth grade.

“It seems difficult to believe, but fifth grade was considered a very high degree of education,” Lachgar said. “You would have government officials with less education than that. But I developed my love for teaching at this young age.”

Lachgar’s path to the university began in February 1991, when he visited the campus for an interview in the chemistry department. Lachgar vividly recalls the visit, which convinced him to accept the faculty position. In addition to the warm faculty reception and the proximity of the campus to the East Coast, Lachgar was amazed by a Wake Forest-Duke basketball game that he just happened to attend.

“I walked out of my hotel, which was across from the Coliseum, and found $20 tickets just like that,” Lachgar said. “I was amazed by the atmosphere — the students, the excitement, Wake Forest’s win.”

Over the years, he has witnessed an expansion in the chemistry department, the faculty’s excitement upon acquiring a single crystal diffractometer and increased cooperation among students, faculty, administration, and the community. “I’m a materials chemist, so I like to think of the four-cornered collaboration as a tetrahedron,” Lachgar said. “There’s this sense of three-dimensionality in our relationship.”

Lachgar teaches a variety of classes at the university, ranging from freshman College Chemistry to Advanced Inorganic Chemistry and Solid States Materials. His interests further expanded when he taught a class called Chemistry and Physics of the Environment. The class called upon students to design their own projects, one of which presented the idea of biodiesel. “I think this is a classic example of how teaching can have a superb and interesting impact on research,” he said.

Interestingly, at the time, Lachgar and his students were less concerned about the cost of energy than the environmental impact of fossil fuels. “When I taught this class, the price of oil was $10 a barrel, and it cost less than a dollar for a gallon of gas,” Lachgar said.

Biodiesel production has its challenges, as Lachgar well knows. Not only is it expensive to produce but there are also technical complications, as free fatty acids (FFA), an ingredient in the process, tend to make soap rather than biodiesel. He and his colleagues began looking for a catalyst for the process, and after discovering a Japanese paper on the topic, were able to develop it.

“First and foremost, we are researchers,” he said. “We do science because we like to benefit our communities.”

While Lachgar acknowledges that the project still faces challenges  —  namely, the catalyst’s recyclability, its turnover possibilities, and a lack of funds — he still looks forward to his job every day. “I haven’t stopped loving this place since I joined,” Lachgar said.