Menus Subscribe Search
Donna Nelson

Donna Nelson, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma

Maven of Meth

• September 05, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Donna Nelson, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma

The real-life chemist behind television’s preeminent crystal cook

Bad news, entrepreneurial fans of Breaking Bad, the hit AMC series about a middle-aged chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin: you cannot actually learn to cook crystal meth by watching the show. “They deliberately put in faulty steps. They’ll start with one method of synthesizing methamphetamine but then switch to another,” says Donna Nelson, professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s like watching a video of someone starting out on a trip to Dallas and ending up in Chicago.” The abundant “meth” that appears on-screen is actually cotton-candy-flavored sugar crystals, she promises.

Nelson isn’t just a well-informed observer; she’s been consulting on the Emmy-winning drama since its second season, helping to ensure that the show’s writers make the chemistry of illegal drug-making credible.

Voluble and cheery, with an understated Southern drawl, Nelson may not have specific expertise in the subject—“I’ve never synthesized anything illegal,” she insists—but she does have appropriate credentials for the job. Originally from the small Oklahoma town of Eufaula, Nelson picked up an interest in science from her father and grandfather, both doctors. In 1983 she became the first tenure-track female professor ever hired by the university’s century-old chemistry department. She estimates that she has taught organic chemistry to nearly 10,000 students. She has also racked up awards and honors from institutions ranging from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation to the National Organization for Women.

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul

Bryan Cranston, left, and Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad

Nelson got involved with Breaking Bad after reading an interview with its creator, Vince Gilligan, in Chemical & Engineering News. “He said neither he nor his writer had a science background, and so they had to rely on Wikipedia and the Web,” she says. “When I read that, I thought, ‘We scientists are always complaining about shows getting the science wrong. It’s like fingernails on a blackboard to us. This would be a great opportunity to work with one.’”

Her second thought, however, was “Wow, do I want to get involved with this show? I wouldn’t want to do anything that looks like it condones illegal synthesis. People say it glamorizes illicit meth labs.” After watching a few episodes, she stopped worrying. “It portrays the characters getting beat up, shot at, having these horrible lives,” she sums up. “I don’t think any kid watching it would want to be like that.” She asked Chemical & Engineering News to let Gilligan know she was willing to offer her services, and quickly heard back from him. By then the show was getting pointers on meth-making from a DEA agent, but Gilligan was especially interested in Nelson’s experience as a chemistry teacher. On a trip to San Diego soon after, Nelson took a detour to Burbank to meet with Gilligan, and has been involved with the show ever since.

In one of the first scenes Nelson was asked to help with, the show’s antihero, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), was supposed to explain the nomenclature of alkyne hydrocarbons to his high school chemistry class. “When I saw what they had written, I thought, ‘Wow, they really need help,’” she recalls. She rewrote much of the dialogue and handed the staff some explanatory diagrams, which she was delighted to see Cranston re-create precisely on-screen on the classroom blackboard.

The chemistry of meth cooking is no secret; there are recipes all over the Internet. One of Nelson’s tasks is to help choose particular cooking methods and calculate how much of each ingredient is required. In one episode, Cranston and his young sidekick, played by Aaron Paul, can’t find any pseudoephedrine—a common meth precursor chemical often extracted from cold medicines. The two steal some 30-gallon drums of methylamine to use instead. “I looked up the exact process in which you’d use methylamine and did all the calculations on how much it would yield,” says Nelson. Turns out there are several different processes one can use. “They chose the one that was easiest for the actors to say.”

The show is now in its fifth season, and Nelson is clearly enjoying the secondhand glamour it brings her—she even made a brief cameo appearance as a nurse in one episode, she says, but wound up on the cutting-room floor. Meanwhile, she’s hoping to leverage her Hollywood cred by making a public service announcement warning Oklahomans about the dangers of crank. That idea came from a recent meeting with the state’s governor. “She told me,” says Nelson, “that the biggest problem we have right now in the state is illegal meth synthesis.”

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

More From Vince Beiser

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.