Revving up solutions

Omar Ishak’s auto repair skills come in handy as he navigates a futuristic research project in the laboratory.

By J. Weston Phippen | November 29, 2023

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Ishak recently restored this 2007 Honda s2000. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Omar Ishak was 13 when he got his first car—or rather, the pieces of his first car. 

Ishak grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he helped out at his dad’s auto shop from a young age. So, he knew his way around automobiles. But the Acura Integra that his dad presented to him was missing most of one side and the engine.

“If you can piece together all the parts,” Ishak remembers his dad saying, “you can have it.”

Ishak, now a technical project manager in the Weapons Production associate directorate at Los Alamos National Laboratory, at first felt overwhelmed at the enormity of the large-scale restoration project. But like any budding scientist, he began with research. He looked over car part manuals and joined online forums, where others wrote about their experiences repairing cars of the same vintage. The more Ishak learned, the more his hesitation turned into excitement for what the vehicle might become. 

Since reconstructing that first car, Ishak has completed 12 full restorations, plus countless partial overhauls. He’s rebuilt suspensions, transmissions, supercharger systems, turbo systems, and even new engines. Ishak works almost exclusively on Japanese imports from the 1990s and early 2000s, mostly Hondas, Toyotas, and the occasional Subaru. “Japanese cars are iconic,” Ishak says, “and when it comes to the bang for your buck they’re unmatched for how they handle and the power per liter of displacement they produce.” 

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Ishak recently restored this 2007 Honda s2000.

From garage to laboratory

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of New Mexico and then a master’s in public health from Tulane University’s School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, Ishak came to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2014. Working as a post-master’s student in the Bioscience division, his first job was to research influenza-A mutagenesis and the propensity to manipulate successive genomic aberrations. When that work had finished, he was tapped to work on the Lab’s Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer project, or ATHENA.

Started as a means to test new drugs and other toxic agents, ATHENA was an effort to build miniaturized bioengineered organs that simulate those in the human body, including the lungs, liver, heart, and kidneys. The project was a little outside of Ishak’s specialization, but his work on cars gave him a unique perspective that allowed him to succeed.

“The logistical issues behind fluid mechanics are surprisingly transferable from cars to organs,” he says, laughing. “When we were building the liver, it was very metabolically demanding and complex. It required various fluid circuits, as well as a dedicated gas supply to help control fluctuations in pH. With a car—it’s not exactly apples to apples, of course—but you’re essentially fighting similar issues, specifically maintaining laminar fluid flow, in addition to thermal management through various complex systems. So, I was able to bring a different approach to solving our issues at hand.”

New challenges

When Ishak completes a build, he often takes the car to a racecourse. Performance on a course is a good indicator of the car’s ability, testing not only horsepower but everything from its handling to braking. “Anyone can add a turbo or supercharger into a car and overpower it,” he says. “But what really counts is how the vehicle functions holistically while balancing other aspects as well. That attention to this detail is what separates the pros.”

These days, outside of the Lab, Ishak has taken up a different but closely related hobby: working on motorcycles. He’s currently restoring a Triumph Daytona 675R, which he will be taking to the track soon. ★