Eccles Visiting Scholar - Dr. Donna Nelson - Breaking Bad Chemistry - 11/11/2021 APEX

Dr. Donna Nelson - Breaking Bad Chemistry

November 11, 2021
The Great Hall

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Eccles Visiting Scholar George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation
SUU and A.P.E.X. Events is most grateful for the support from The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation which made this event possible.

Donna J. Nelson is an American chemist and professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. Nelson specializes in organic chemistry, which she both researches and teaches.

Nelson served as a science advisor to the AMC television show Breaking Bad.

She was the 2016 President of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with her presidential activities focusing on and guided by communities in chemistry. Nelson's research focused on five primary topics, generally categorized in two areas, Scientific Research and America's Scientific Readiness. Within Scientific Research, Nelson's topics have been on mechanistic patterns in alkene addition reactions and on Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube (SWCNT) functionalization and analysis, yielding the first COSY NMR spectrum of covalently functionalized SWCNTs in solution.

Under America's Scientific Readiness, she focuses on science education and impacting science by considering its communities; this includes classroom innovations and correcting organic chemistry textbook inaccuracies, on ethnic and gender diversity (the Nelson Diversity Surveys) among highly ranked science departments of research universities, and on improving the image and presentation of science and scientists to the public.


On November 11, Dr. Donna Nelson — the chemist behind Breaking Bad — was the APEX speaker of the week.

Nelson was introduced by Frank Hall, the Dean of the College of Sciences at SUU. Friends for more than 20 years, Hall explained that Nelson is a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her recent research focuses on chemistry education, and she is correcting organic chemistry textbooks.

In an article in Chemical and Engineering News magazine, Vince Gilligan said that “getting science details correct was important, much scientific information for the show was researched because the show's budget didn’t allow for a paid science advisor. We welcome constructive comments from a chemically-inclined audience.” Nelson read this and knew she had to volunteer for this hit television show to succeed even more than it already was.

Nelson claimed that there were at least three benefits to taking this job as chemical advisor. Those benefits include to “be able to affect how science and scientists are portrayed on television. producers and writers would learn more about their subjects and the public in viewing the finished project would get to see scientific information correctly.”

When she met with the Breaking Bad team for the first time, they asked her all sorts of weird questions. “What kind of person becomes a scientist? How does a scientist talk to people? These people had not met a scientist.”

This project was completely different from anything Nelson had done before. "Throughout my interactions with the Breaking Bad team, it seemed I was in a different world," she explained. "Vocabulary was different; they wanted to learn mine and I wanted to learn theirs."

After describing all the scientific details, which occur behind the scenes of the show, Nelson said that "in Breaking Bad the science is so spectacular, it becomes a different character."

Wanting to get one message across to the audience of Breaking Bad — if she is going to do all of this for them — Nelson wanted it to be "the general public does not sufficiently value science and scientists."

Furthering her thought, Nelson explained that "the general public does not appreciate science and scientists. The general public doesn’t realize that everything that brings them all of their conveniences that they enjoy is brought to them by scientists. They don’t realize that without us they would have nothing."

Leaving the audience with some advice, Nelson suggested that everyone must "maintain honesty, ethics, and integrity in everything you do in your professional and personal lives. Dream big — if you shoot for the moon, you might hit Mount Everest. Be persistent. If it is what you want to do, do it. Make yourself happy. Be ready and be able to recognize a great opportunity and seize it."


Audio Transcript