There is an important message behind the story of how Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, became the science adviser for Breaking Bad: do not ever think your volunteering will not make a difference. After a plea for assistance from the producer of Breaking Bad appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, Nelson decided to volunteer in the hope of showing more accurate science on television. She became the lone volunteer out of the magazine’s 165,000 subscribers. We recently chatted with Nelson about her first meeting with the show’s writers, why she became a chemist, and why scientists should volunteer to help out Hollywood.

Tell us about your background. How did you become interested in organic chemistry?

My father and grandfather were MDs. I was originally planning to take over their practices in my home town of Eufaula, Oklahoma. By the time I changed my mind, I had taken so many chemistry classes. So, I became a chemist. Organic chemistry was the type of chemistry I liked the most.

Are there any films or television shows that have inspired you as a scientist?

Growing up, I watched many movies on television. In older movies, scientists were often presented as heroic leaders, helping their communities. There were many biographies of scientists and leaders generally. I was probably inspired more by the activities of my own family; when I was growing up, my father was the only doctor in our small town, and he took the responsibility that came with that very seriously. He was very good to the townspeople, and they respected him and valued him as a result.

How did you become the science consultant for Breaking Bad? What is it about this particular show that piqued your interest?

An article ran in Chemical & Engineering News during the first season of Breaking Bad, and in that article was an interview with Vince Gilligan, the producer. He was saying that he and the writers did not have any scientific background to speak of, and he talked about the difficulty of having to write for a show about organic chemistry reactions without a scientific background. He had to go to the web, Wikipedia, and places like that to hunt down information so that he could get it right for the show. He said it made a difference to him. He was interested in having the science right. I knew that scientists, including myself, are uncomfortable whenever we see bad science presented on television or in the movies. Someone, for instance, grabs a can of baking powder and throws it on the monster and the monster decomposes. It is not very realistic. Vince actually stated in his interview that he welcomed constructive comments from knowledgeable sources, and he said he’d like some assistance. I thought, “You know, I’ll volunteer. It’ll be community service, that’s how I’ll view it.” I thought it would be a wonderful way for chemists to get to know these people who are writing about us, and once they got to know us better, they might present us more accurately. I contacted Vince through the writer of the article and I was surprised when Vince said, “Yes, we would love to have your assistance.” 

So, we arranged for me to come out to their offices in Burbank, and I met with the writers and Vince. The writers asked me questions like, “Why did you become a scientist? Why does a person become a scientist? Why does a person leave science? Why makes a person become a high school chemistry teacher? What makes a person select organic chemistry?” for background for the show. My son was with me and they asked him questions as well, because he was getting a bachelor’s in chemical engineering at the time. The writers asked me out to lunch, and the whole time, they kept asking me questions. I think they were hungry for contact with a scientist. Since then, we’ve kept in contact through e-mail. They send me questions and I respond. That’s how we struck up the relationship.

What has been a standout moment during science advising for Breaking Bad?

I've been impressed by the care taken to get the science right, even when it does not directly impact the script. For example, they asked how much meth would be synthesized using a 30-gallon drum of methylamine; the answer was around 233 pounds. I thought they might want to know if the product would fit into a car trunk, could one person lift it, etc. However, they wanted to know if it was sufficient to impact the drug community. Only one sentence appeared in the script as a result, in which the DEA agent says something like “With 30 gallons of precursor, he’ll be stepping on some toes.”

We know that television and film benefit from science advising, but what advantages are there for the scientists? 

When producers, writers, and advisers get to know more scientists, perhaps we will be portrayed more accurately in moving media.

You and your students have done research that spotlights how poorly women and minorities are represented among the faculties of leading research universities. What do you think needs to be done to improve their representation in the STEM fields? Would more women and minority scientists in film and television help change this pattern?

Due to lower numbers, members of underrepresented groups can be viewed as targets of opportunity, when professors become desperate to “succeed.” Much of the struggle is about resources and credit for work, and about protecting your resources and credit when others try to take them. How well you protect yours can determine your credibility, your standard of living, your future opportunities, and how you are treated generally. As always, bringing visibility to such behavior does the most toward changing it.

You have coordinated two panels at American Chemical Society conferences to discuss science in television and film. What do you hope to inspire by these event?

I hope science and scientists will be portrayed more accurately. Sometimes the portrayals of either or both are completely unrealistic, although it is getting better. There are problems among scientists, just as there are among any community, but I think the general public does not understand much of the barriers and challenges we face. Some television shows, such as those participating in our panels, are helping greatly.


Read more Scientist Spotlight interviews here.

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