Donna Nelson, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and the science advisor for Breaking Bad, took the stage at MTSU’s Tucker Theater Thursday evening to discuss her contributions to the show.
The second keynote speaker in MTSU’s “Breaking Bad week,” Nelson was funny and engaging as she spoke about her time working on the show, sharing anecdotes about the cast and crew, as well as clips from the show of scenes that her advice directly influenced.
Nelson was flipping through an issue of Chemical & Engineering News when a photo of Bryan Cranston, who played the show’s main character Walter White, dressed in a lab apron and little else caught her attention. It was an interview with Breaking Bad creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan, who said that he wanted to make his show scientifically accurate, but, because the budget would not allow for a paid science advisor, he and his staff were relying on the internet.
“We welcome constructive comments from chemically-inclined individuals,” he said in the article.
She reached out to Gilligan and was invited to meet him and his staff of writers in Burbank, California. Nelson said she admired Gilligan’s passionate interest in science, and she began a working with the team on a volunteer basis.
“He had no formal science background, but he loved science,” said Nelson. “I think he was a science groupie as a kid.”
Despite her initial misgivings about being associated with a show about methamphetamine, Nelson saw the show as a “fabulous opportunity” to expose viewers to real science and show people that scientists are not “one-dimensional nerds.”
Joining midway through the first season, Nelson’s first contribution was to draw molecular structure diagrams that set decorators would reproduce on the backboard of White’s high school chemistry classroom, as well as help the writers with the content of Walt’s lecture on alkenes.
“High school organic chemistry, this is going to be pretty easy,” said Nelson about her doubts going into the show, “They may not even need me, this may turn out to be nothing.”
“But when they sent me the script they had written, I realized, ‘Oh no, they are going to need me.'”
As she played the clip, Nelson gestured excitedly with her laser pointer at her drawing whenever it appeared on screen.
“You can’t imagine how I felt,” said Nelson. “Oh my god, this is going out to thousands–millions–of viewers, and there are going to be some students out there who just had alkene terminology in class, maybe as high-schoolers or undergraduates, and what they see here will agree completely with what they were taught in class.”
“That’s great. That is one of the goals.”
Nelson praised Gilligan’s commitment to making a show that was not only scientifically accurate, but one that featured science as one of the show’s main stars.
Nelson recalled an episode in which Walter and Jesse (Aaron Paul) use thermite to break into a warehouse, and the show’s actors are briefly outshined by an exothermic oxidation-reduction reaction.
“They ignite the thermite and the thermite sends these sparks across the screen, lighting it,” said Nelson. “So what’s the star of the show at that time? The science…. That’s what makes Breaking Bad different.”
Nelson’s favorite scene in the show is the namesake sequence in the season 4 episode “Boxcutter,” in which Walt argues for his and Jesse’s lives before cartel boss Gus Fring using scientific terminology.
“In this scene, Walt is saying, ‘without us, you have no one!'” said Nelson. “And I kept telling Vince that the general public needs to realize, without scientists, they’re gonna have nothing. The standard of living in our country would really decline without scientists.”
“If we want to change the public’s opinion of us, and how much they value us, when they come to us and say ‘can you help me’…we need to step forward and help them,” said Nelson. “If we don’t step forward and help them, we have no right to complain about what they say.”
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