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A-1 chemistry


Oklahoma native and OU chemistry professor Donna Nelson cooks up an epic run with the hit series Breaking Bad and talks about her hopes for the blowout series finale.

Collin Hudson September 25th, 2013

When she read the article in Chemical & Engineering News that featured writer-producer Vince Gilligan, University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna J. Nelson had never heard of the TV show Breaking Bad.

In the interview, Gilligan put out a call for some feedback “from a chemically inclined audience” about the science in the now-runaway smash hit show, culminating in its final episode Sunday on AMC.

“This is a wonderful opportunity,” she thought. She took it.

“We in science, it just drives us crazy when we see badly flawed science presented on television and in the movies. It’s like fingernails on the blackboard,” the teacher said during a recent interview in between classes at her campus office in Norman. “We’ve been complaining to each other about this for some time.”

Nelson screened several episodes and was shocked by Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the lead character that “breaks bad” by transforming from a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher into a homicidal meth-manufacturing kingpin.

She decided she’d help make a change, and she cooked up a way in which to do it.

“I don’t even know anyone that does drugs,” she said. “I had to look those things up to get the chemistry right.”

Being a native of Eufaula, she also felt a responsibility to both the Oklahoma community and the scientific community to not simply glorify illegal drugs and their use.

“I really thought a lot about what impact this show would have on children, but I can’t imagine anyone watching this show and thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s the lifestyle for me, getting dragged through the sand and shot at, and getting beat up all the time.’” Nelson’s goal in agreeing to help the show with getting the science right was to the help the community in general, and the scientific community specifically.

Hooked
After watching a few episodes, she was hooked — and likewise was Gilligan with her. Her input quickly became an asset to the show’s overall tone and structure.

Gilligan wisely applied Nelson’s chemistry knowledge to the improvement of Breaking Bad in more ways than one. When she first met with the writers in California, they asked her about a chemistry teacher’s general characteristics, how he would interact with students in a lab and why someone might choose to be a high school chemistry teacher.

These basic questions helped them flesh out White.

Before long, writers also needed to know how many pounds of “blue” meth could realistically be made from 30 gallons of methylamine — a chemical White and his former slacker student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) lifted from a warehouse.

Soon, too, Nelson was a star in her own right, especially in science circles, she said — that was both good and bad.

“I have been asked for my autograph a few times now ... but I’ve also had students ask me things like if I would know how to synthesize cocaine,” she said. “The kids are fascinated by it. I’ve been on blogs where they’re arguing about the chemistry on the show and starting a dialogue about science. It’s fantastic. So it was absolutely the right thing to do to get involved with the show.”

On the circuit
When asked about how she hopes the show will end, Nelson doesn’t flinch. “I hope Skylar becomes stronger and a leader, that the people doing illegal things are defeated, and the good scientists prevail,” she said.

Her payoff for working with Breaking Bad (she took no money) was seeing that the chemistry presented was sound enough to keep the attention of viewers young enough to perhaps take a further interest in science, she said.

“When I was growing up in Eufaula, I thought, ‘What opportunities will I ever have?’ so I want Oklahoma kids to know they can succeed through getting out there, being persistent and being ready for opportunities when they arrive.”

Nelson may have helped planned it that way. She admits that she has met nearly all the cast and crew of Breaking Bad.

And, while making the rounds as a consultant, she also met star David Saltzberg, science advisor for The Big Bang Theory, when she was a guest on the set of his Geek of the Week show.

What exactly does Nelson know about the show’s upcoming finale?

She won’t say.

 
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