10 Questions for Donna Nelson, Breaking Bad’s Science Muse
The organic chemistry professor helps the Emmy-winning series make scientific sense.
Since 2008, Donna Nelson has been a muse of sorts to the writers of Breaking Bad, AMC’s Emmy-winning series. As the show’s science advisor, she’s had a say in everything from the way crystal meth is “cooked” on screen to what protagonist Walter White scrawls on his classroom chalkboard.
Like White, Nelson teaches chemistry—she’s a professor at the University of Oklahoma. But the comparisons end there. Where White’s career was full of disappointment, Nelson can point to a long list of accomplishments.
Before the series finale, which airs this Sunday, Science Friday spoke with Nelson (a former SciFri guest) about teaching “orgo,” her favorite scientists, and her experience on the set of the hit show. (To hear more about the science in Breaking Bad, watch the video at the end of this article.)
Science Friday: When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?
Donna Nelson: I was influenced by my father and grandfather, who were both MDs. I could tell that my father was using the scientific method, because I would overhear some of his discussions with patients. I understood the concept of deduction—identifying the problem, gathering certain information, and using it to make a decision—very, very early. It became a natural characteristic for me. I thought, I’ll take over the family business, that’s just what I’ll do. I mentioned it to my father and he said, ‘No, you don’t want to be a doctor. You’re around sick people all the time, you listen to complaints all day, you start to think everybody’s a hypochondriac!’ I thought very seriously about it, and I decided I wanted to be a professor and be around students for the rest of my life. I got my bachelor’s in chemistry, and I went to graduate school in chemistry. I took organic chemistry and then physical organic chemistry, and I was hooked. It’s problem solving. You go in, you collect data, and you make a scientific deduction, and I just absolutely loved it.
Who was your favorite science teacher?
My favorite teacher of all time actually wasn’t a chemistry teacher. Dr. Kantowsy taught undergraduate physics at the University of Oklahoma, and I thought he was just fabulous. He had such a terrific relationship with students, and his classes were so interesting—it was just his way of involving the class and constantly asking them questions. He constantly had a good rapport with the class. I model my own teaching after that.
Who are your scientific idols?
I really enjoyed both of my mentors, Michael Dewar and Herbert C. Brown, for different reasons. I worked with Michael Dewar, a famous chemist, at the University of Texas at Austin. He was so creative—the most creative person I’ve ever seen. He could explain the most complicated problem to even lay people. Herb Brown was immensely successful—he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was the most well-organized person I ever knew. So I got to see two very famous scientists who approached their science from totally different perspectives.
What’s your favorite molecule?
Single-walled carbon nanotubes [forms of carbon with a cylindrical structure]. That’s what I’m researching now. It’s a very interesting molecule, and I don’t think that all of the applications for it have been discovered yet.
What is your favorite chemical element?
Carbon. I’m an organic chemist!
What are the main areas of your research?
I have two main areas. One involves characterizing single-walled carbon nanotubes, and the other one, which we’re just wrapping up, focuses on alkenes. An alkene, simply, is just a molecule that has a carbon-carbon double bond, which is a point of reactivity. So alkenes can be converted into all sorts of other molecules, like alcohols. They’re synthetically very useful—they’ve been used to make a lot of pharmaceuticals. They’re considered very basic building blocks in organic chemistry.
I also focus on what you could best describe as America’s ‘scientific readiness’ [the ability to respond rapidly to economic, national security, and social needs which require science to address them]. That would encompass my teaching organic chemistry. Last time I calculated, I had taught over 10,000 students at the University of Oklahoma. Scientific readiness also brings in things like my science advising on ‘Breaking Bad.’ I’ve done the Nelson Diversity surveys, too. We went in to science departments at the major universities in the United States and quantified the representation of women and minorities among tenured faculty.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on alkenes. That took a very long time; I’ve worked on that for probably 25 years. It wasn’t well understood and it’s sort of convoluted.
Have the Breaking Bad people given you anything as a thank-you gift?
They’ve sent me some souvenirs a number of times along the way. I got a hat that was signed by all of the actors. Another was a T-shirt that said ‘Heisenberg.’ Things with sentimental value.
You filmed a cameo appearance as a nursing home attendant on the show. What happened to that?
I guess it got discarded. I might mention, that day on the set, I kept wondering, I know that they have makeup people. Are they going to come make me up? But I was told most of the makeup people are there to put on bruises and cuts.
Now that the show has ended, what will you do with your newfound free time?
I don’t have any free time. I’m so busy, and that’s the way I like to stay. One of my life goals has been to try to make organic chemistry easier to learn. I may eventually write an organic chemistry textbook.
In the video below—by Elaine Seward and produced by the American Chemical Society—Nelson describes how she works with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and its writers to keep the show’s scientific content accurate.