Oklahoma professor helps keep the science straight for ‘Breaking Bad’

By Kendra Whitman

“Breaking Bad,” the Emmy Award-winning television series, has had help getting the science right since the show’s early days from a source at U. Oklahoma.

Donna Nelson, chemistry professor, has been a consultant for the show since 2008 and said she wants to give the writers an accurate portrayal of what scientists are really like, not just the stereotypes.

When Nelson first heard about the show, the first season was well underway, she said.

She read creator and producer Vince Gilligan’s appeal to scientists in the American Chemical Society magazine. He was seeking “constructive criticism” to help accurately portray the science on the show, Nelson said.

“Breaking Bad” tells the story of a cancer-riddled chemistry teacher, Walter White, who cooks meth to save money for his family after he is gone, according to IMDb.com.

Nelson said she considered many things before signing on, including elevating the drug industry and her own reputation. When the show started winning awards, she said she realized how big it would be.

“This show is going to be a hit with good science or with bad science,” Nelson said. “I really need to step up and help the scientific community.”

Plus, the show is not a how-to guide for making meth because it never demonstrates the synthesis of the drugs, Nelson said.

“If they (the viewers) tried to reproduce this, they would get garbage,” Nelson said.

She said she visited Burbank, Calif., to meet with Gilligan. When the show’s writers grilled her, Nelson said she had to give insight into the lives of scientists.

“They started asking me all these questions about my life,” Nelson said. “What makes a person be a scientist? What makes a person be a chemist?”

They had not talked to many scientists, and she wanted to give them an accurate portrayal to dispel the known caricatures, Nelson said.

“The mad scientist, the evil scientist, the bad scientist, the nerd scientist,” she said. “They don’t know us. So I tried to make a connection and make them realize we are just like normal people.”

Since that meeting, Nelson said she has been a regular consultant for the duration of the show.

She said a highlight from working on the show has been seeing her contribution on television. She also has met the cast, visited to the set and appeared at Comic-Con.

It is important that science is accurately portrayed on shows because they can reach the next generation of scientists, Nelson said.

“We need to have more U.S. kids going into science,” she said. “There are going to be a lot more people watching that show then there are going to be sitting in my classes.”

Her interaction with the show is reaching people. Cameron University in Lawton invited Nelson for a panel Feb. 23 to discuss scientific accuracy in film, Cameron chemistry professor Ann Nalley said. Nalley said she was surprised when the room filled with undergraduates, graduates and TV news crews.

“It was very popular; I was amazed,” Nalley said. “Television stations don’t usually come out when I have ordinary chemists speak.”

Cleaning up scientific error does not stop with the show. Currently, Nelson is working with OU undergraduates to evaluate organic chemistry textbooks to help improve their accuracy.

“There were severe flaws. I don’t mean the styles or typos — I mean they were getting the science factually wrong,” she said. “So we are going to clean it up.”

Biochemistry junior Jean Wu, an undergraduate participating in the study, said Nelson wants to create a uniform textbook just for organic chemistry.

It also is a learning opportunity because researchers can compare and contrast the information in different textbooks, Wu said.

Nelson said she also is doing research into the national numbers of women and minorities among faculty in 15 scientific fields.

“We are showing whether women are represented appropriately in proportion to their numbers and also how that has changed over time,” Nelson said.

Nelson said she is open to consulting on other shows in the future.

Read more here: http://oudaily.com/news/2012/jul/26/breaking-bad/
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