To help with the meth-making equations on “Breaking Bad,” showrunner Vince Gilligan had to call in an expert. That very expert was called to speak at Binghamton University on Wednesday.
Donna Nelson, the president-elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the largest professional society for scientists in the world, was the keynote speaker for Binghamton’s ACS section award ceremony. Wednesday’s event honored students and professors of the Southern Tier who excelled in chemistry.
Among those recognized were Sandy Zhang, a senior majoring in chemistry, who won the Outstanding Undergraduate Senior Chemistry Major Award in the Southern Tier. Megan Fegley, a recent graduate of BU who holds a doctorate in chemistry, won the Zappert Award for Outstanding Graduating Ph.D. Student in the Southern Tier.
A large portion of Nelson’s talk focused on her work with Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” and his team of writers.
According to her, she was flipping through a copy of Chemical & Engineering News when she came across an article about “Breaking Bad,” a show she had previously never heard of, requesting a volunteer science adviser.
“I saw that Vince Gilligan said we don’t have money to hire a science adviser but we would appreciate constructive remarks from a chemically inclined audience,” said Nelson, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma. “I sat straight up and I thought, ‘Wow, this is an astonishing opportunity.’”
After watching the first five episodes and realizing the show did not glorify drugs, Nelson decided to apply. She was hired as the volunteer science adviser by June 2008, and was contacted whenever the writers and directors needed a consultation.
Nelson said she saw this as an opportunity to help build a bridge between the science community and the entertainment industry.
“We all know how much influence Hollywood has on the public,” Nelson said. “The producers and writers would get to learn about us and the public would get to see correct science information portrayed.”
Dan Brennan, associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Broome and chair of the Binghamton ACS section, said the ceremony offered a chance to hear about a unique perspective on careers in chemistry.
“It’s an important event because it gives us a chance to recognize local talent and to encourage people to pursue chemistry as a possible career path,” Brennan said.
Nelson described her experience working on “Breaking Bad” as fabulous, and said that Gilligan and his writers were passionate about keeping the show as scientifically accurate as possible. Some of her equations and diagrams would appear on Walter White’s journal pages and chalkboard.
She said one of her favorite tasks was working out an equation that would answer how much meth, in pounds, could be synthesized from 30 gallons of the compound methylamine.
“I still remember the night this came through in my email, I just sat and laughed because it violated so many things,” Nelson said. “We don’t use pounds in a lab and I don’t think I’ve ever used 30 gallons of anything.”
After receiving her award and hearing Nelson’s talk, Zhang said that she planned to go back and re-watch the show with her current chemistry knowledge.
“I watched ‘Breaking Bad’ like three years ago,” Zhang said. “I want to go back and watch those scenes with the chemistry and see if it would make more sense.”