Professor Donna Nelson, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA, has been the science advisor to the TV show Breaking Bad. Besides her research in the field of physical organic chemistry, she has a great interest in improving the image of scientists in the public, improving science education, and in ethnic and gender diversity among highly ranked science departments of research universities. In November 2014, she was elected to become 2015 President-Elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in January.
Dr. Vera Koester, ChemViews Magazine, talked with her about her experiences with Hollywood, how to bridge science and the public and about her motivation.
What made you interested in becoming a science advisor to the writers of Breaking Bad?
I read Vince Gilligan’s interview in C&E News and learned about the show Breaking Bad. In that interview, Vince said the show did not have funds to pay a science advisor, but he welcomed constructive comments from a chemically inclined audience.
I thought this was a fabulous opportunity to bridge science and the public. Initially, I was a bit daunted because I realized that Breaking Bad was about the subject of meth, that is, the illegal synthesis of meth, which is not a good thing for a chemistry professor to get involved in. When I watched the first few episodes of season 1, I could see that they were not glorifying the meth industry or illegal drugs and so I contacted the C&E News editor in order to relay a message to Vince that I was willing to help them. About a week later, they got back in touch with me and said that was fabulous.
And how did this happen exactly? You received scripts or did they phone you?
Both. Telephone calls, scripts, and I did a couple of set visits and talked with the writers. They would send me pages of the scripts to review, they would ask questions, or they would ask me how things are pronounced, to do certain stoichiometric calculations, or to draw things that went on the board, all sorts of things.
And was it always easy or straightforward for you to find an answer? They had some topics like the crystal meth synthesizing episode or where a body is dissolved in HF, which normally does not relate to our daily matters as a chemist.
Well the body being dissolved in HF took place before I came on board. I didn’t know about the show until the end of season one. So the illegal meth synthesis, the setup of the Winnebago lab, the super lab, and the test labs were before I joined them. The Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, helped them with that.
The DEA was interested because they helped to keep the show legal. They could tell them what was appropriate to show on television and what steps needed to be glossed over. Also, since they shut down illegal labs they know exactly what those illegal labs look like, what equipment is being used, and so forth. So if you look at the acknowledgements at the end of the credits of each show, lots of times you’ll see the DEA mentioned.
You said somewhere else that you sometimes had to make compromises, for example, that crystal meth is blue in the show instead of white.
Well Vince did ask me, “What do you think of making the meth blue?” and I told him I wouldn’t do it. He asked if really pure meth would be blue and I said no, really pure meth would be white or colorless if it was in a crystal form.
However, we have to acknowledge that this is fiction and not a science documentary show. The first goal is to keep the show interesting and for it to survive. And in this case, they wanted to give Walt a trademark. As a science advisor you have to realize that you have to keep your goals in line with the goals of the show. I think that’s an important concept to keep in mind.
Was this hard for you to learn?
There was a rumor in Hollywood that science advisors were sort of difficult to work with, that they would try to change the show and make it a science documentary, and that they would be constantly demanding that the show be changed in ways that would make it unsuccessful. So I was determined to make it a pleasant interaction and to work with them to improve the show and not harm it. And I think that I did that.
I wanted Breaking Bad writers, directors, producers, just everybody there, to think that it was a fabulous interaction. When the show ends they all split up and everybody goes to a different show. I thought, they will be talking about the experience with me, sooner or later someone will ask them, and I want them to be able to say, “Yes, it was a great experience. I strongly suggest you get a science advisor.” I have seen in print where Vince and others have mentioned me so I do think that I did my part towards that.
Do you have one scene that you like most or find most exciting?
Well I think there are several things. One is in an episode in the superlab. Walt is speaking to Gus as he is changing into his sort of HazMat suit. Walt is saying: “Just remember one thing, without Jesse and me you’ll have no one to make your product.” I think chemists are not appreciated enough. I know that the public realizes that they have wonderful products that they use everyday and that improve their standard of living. I don’t believe the public realize the many fabulous advantages they enjoy which are courtesy of science and scientists, so I don’t think they appreciate science and scientists enough.
When they sent me those script pages for me to help make it credible, I didn’t realize that the scene was going to be done so powerfully, but I am glad it was, because the message “without us you’ll have nothing” is good for the public to think about.
I think communicating science to the public is a goal in other areas of your work as well?
Yes. I think that it would help science immensely for scientists to interact more with the public and be well-perceived by the public. It would help if the public not only understood science but also appreciated science. There’s a difference between understanding science versus appreciating science and acknowledging that the vast majority of the things which increase our standard of living are brought to us by science.
So do you have any advice for us?
Well it’s really pretty simple. We need to network with the public more to talk about the things that we do. A lot of the general public don’t know any scientists. I mean they know they’re out there but they don’t know what they do and I think that we need to speak at places like rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, to the groups that we interact with, to let them know what we do.
I think that scientists are a little bit shy sometimes and sometimes perhaps too modest in what they do. I believe that scientists are absolutely fabulous people, highly intelligent, and well organized and I think that all of us scientists, not just the leaders and not just the few who are known for interacting with the public, but all of us scientists should communicate more with the general public.
That is true.
You are also developing and evaluating learning devices for students. Can you say something about that?
I have taught organic chemistry to more than 10,000 students. A lot of people think that organic chemistry is difficult. So I developed some teaching devices to help students learn it.
Additionally, I try to ensure that all gender groups are well represented. The minorities of today are going to be the majority of tomorrow, so it’s really important that we are inclusive. One of the things that I did is the Nelson Diversity Survey where we determined the representation of women and minorities among professors by science and engineering disciplines at research universities.
And you also have your research. So do you still have time for other interests in your spare time or do you even have spare time?
Well I’m one of those lucky people whose job includes my hobbies, like the diversity studies and that experience with Hollywood. I also have a family. I have a son. He was heavily influenced by science and he became a chemical engineer. I have been very lucky, I think, to be able to do pretty much what I wanted to do. Science runs through my life in so many different ways.
What is your biggest motivation?
My biggest motivation: Well, both my mother and father always made me feel that I can do anything if I really set my mind to it. From the beginning, I was one of those kids who really enjoyed problem solving. I think that if you really enjoy problem solving, as soon as you see a problem, you start to think about the way you can make a contribution. And once you see you can make a contribution, like the need to communicate science to the public, when an opportunity pops up you take it.
Sometimes it seems that we chemists don’t know how to communicate, or we don’t find the right words or we don’t know which channels to use.
The thing is you have to practice in order to get it perfect. So anyone who thinks they can’t get out there and talk to people they just have to get out there and try to.
I have started telling people, hey, if I can reach out and interact with Hollywood, you can reach out looking for your opportunity and when it comes along, take it and don’t be afraid.
The more you do it, the better you get at it. We really must get out and interact more with the public and make it a friendlier interaction between science and the general public.
Yes that’s true and it is a good final statement. And if we do so, we get more role models and more ideas others can follow.
Thank you very much for this interview.
Donna Nelson, born 1954 in Eufaula, Oklahoma, USA, studied chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and gained her PhD in chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin, USA, under the supervision of Michael J. S. Dewar. She did post-doctorate work at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA, with Chemistry Nobel Laureate Herbert C. Brown. Nelson then joined the University of Oklahoma as a faculty member, was a Faculty Fellow in the University of Oklahoma Provost’s Office from 1989 to 1990 and a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA, in 2003 and in 2010.
Donna Nelson’s research focusses on mechanistic patterns in alkene addition reactions and Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube (SWCNT) functionalization and analysis.
- American Chemical Society (ACS) Fellow (2010)
- Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame (2013)
- Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century (2006)
- American Association for the Advancement of Science AAAS Fellow (2005)
- ACS Israel Award (2011)
- Ionomer Covalent Functionalization of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Radical Polymerization of Zirconium Acrylate,
Sellamuthu N. Jaisankar, Donna J. Nelson, Ravi Kumar, et al.
AICHE J. 2014, 60 (3), 820–828.
DOI: DOI: 10.1002/aic.14336
- Characterizing Covalently Sidewall-Functionalized Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Using H-1 NMR Spectroscopy,
Donna J. Nelson, Ravi Kumar,
J. Phys. Chem. C 2013, 117 (28), 14812–14823.
- Regiochemical Reversals in Nitrosobenzene Reactions with Carbonyl Compounds – α-Aminooxy Ketone versus α-Hydroxyamino Ketone Products,
Donna J. Nelson, Ravi Kumar, Shagufta,
Europ. J. Org. Chem. 2012, 30, 6013–6020.
- Self-Disproportionation of Enantiomers via Sublimation; New and Truly Green Dimension in Optical Purification,
Jianlin Han, Donna J. Nelson, Alexander E. Sorochinsky, et al.,
Curr. Org. Synth. 2011, 8 (2), 310–317.
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