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University of Oklahoma chemistry professor lent expertise for 'Breaking Bad'

Donna Nelson has been serving as science adviser for the AMC crime drama “Breaking Bad” for the past five years.
by Silas Allen Published: September 29, 2013

Spend more than a few minutes talking to Donna Nelson, and you'd never guess she's someone who spends much time thinking about cooking meth.

Bubbly and professorial, Nelson seems like she'd be more at home in a science lab than a meth lab. But for the past five years, the University of Oklahoma chemistry professor has had another job on the side — serving as a science adviser for the AMC crime drama “Breaking Bad.”

In that role, she's had to spend a lot of time writing, talking and thinking about the drug trade. But if you ask her if she's ever made anything illicit herself, she'll just laugh.

“I am the mild-mannered organic chemistry teacher at the University of Oklahoma,” she said. “I am not the meth-crazed drug kingpin.”

As science adviser, Nelson worked with the show's writers to make sure the science measured up. Periodically, the show's writers would call or email with questions, she said. Other times, they'd email passages from a script for her to review, she said.

Nelson got involved with the show in 2008, after seeing an interview with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the American Chemical Society's trade magazine.

In the story, Gilligan said he was interested in making sure the science behind the show was as accurate as possible, but he didn't have a budget for an on-set science adviser. But Gilligan said he hoped to get “constructive comments from a chemically-inclined audience.”

That quote piqued Nelson's interest. For years, she'd seen scientific facts and the scientific profession portrayed badly on television and in movies. Like most scientists, she was annoyed by it, she said.

“It's like fingernails on a blackboard,” she said.

She liked the idea of the creator of a TV show reaching out to scientists for help. But the show was still in its first season, and she'd never heard of it.

When she found out the show was about meth, she had misgivings, she said. But after watching the first five episodes, she was sure the show wasn't glorifying the drug trade.

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