NORMAN — 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.
“I can't imagine somebody looking at Walter White getting beat up and shot at and stabbed and dragged through the desert sand in his underwear and saying ‘Yeah! That's the life I want,'” she said.
So Nelson volunteered to be a science adviser for the show, and the producers accepted. Since then, she's helped the show's writers with questions ranging from how certain chemicals react with each other to how a faculty researcher and a student might relate to each other in a lab.
Occasionally, she'd come across a question that stumped her. Once, for a scene in which Walter White broke into a storage shed and stole a 30-gallon drum of methylamine, the writers asked her how many pounds of methamphetamine the barrel would make.
For a moment, Nelson was at a loss, she said. Chemists usually deal in drops, not gallons, she said. She'd never used 30 gallons of anything all at once.
Still, the formula is essentially the same for 30 gallons as for three drops, she said. So she asked which reducing agent the writers wanted to use, since that would affect the yield. She sent them a list of possible reducing agents. The writers chose mercury aluminum — not because it would work the best in the real world, but because the actors would have the easiest time saying the name.
‘A different world'
“I've chosen (chemicals) based on percent yield, safety, cost, reaction time, product purity, but never how easy it is to speak the name,” she said. “It's a different world.”
Questions like those gave Nelson a view into a world far removed from the lab at OU where she goes to work every day. She got to see different perspectives, and thought about chemistry in a way she never had before. If she got the chance to do something similar again, she said she would consider it.
“I'm not saying that I would want to quit my job as a professor of chemistry,” she said. “If the opportunity came up again, I would probably take it.”