The Separation Science Behind The Cult TV Show


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Donna Nelson, from the University of Oklahoma, USA, and scientific advisor to the hit television show Breaking Bad spoke to LCGC about her research in academia, as well as her role on the show.

Donna Nelson, from the University of Oklahoma, USA, and scientific advisor to the hit television show Breaking Bad spoke to LCGC about her research in academia, as well as her role on the show.

Q. How did you enter the field of nanoscience research?

A: I have been interested in and researched π systems my entire career. Single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) intrigued me because they are a network of double-bonded carbon atoms (C=C). I wanted to explore the differences between their reactivity and the reactivity of simple alkenes, which I had explored in depth with a variety of reagents. I eventually found that the reactivity of the two classes of compounds have few similarities, but along the way, I became intrigued with the characterization of functionalized SWCNTs.

Q. You have synthesized and characterized tamoxifen-tethered SWCNTs by using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Why is NMR spectroscopy your method of characterization?

A: NMR gave us detailed information about each proton in the molecule. By comparing the NMR spectrum of the tamoxifen tether before and after attachment to the SWCNT, we were able to reveal the impact of the SWCNT upon each proton. Those protons closer to the SWCNT were more affected, and this supported our selection of the position at which SWCNT was attached to the tamoxifen.

Q. What are the potential applications of tamoxifen-tethered SWCNTs? What are the advantages?

A: It had previously been shown that tamoxifen was more effective against breast cancer when it had a large group attached to it. There seemed to be a steric effect caused by tamoxifen, in which it blocked access to the receptor site. We thought that attaching an extremely bulky group to tamoxifen, such as a SWCNT, might increase the effectiveness of tamoxifen dramatically. Also, SWCNTs have the ability to absorb strongly in the near IR region, which makes them a good candidate for photothermal therapy. So, the functionalizd SWCNT can bind to the estrogen receptor site through tamoxifen, and simultaneously SWCNTs can be used in photothermal therapy. This dual combination should provide an increase in overall effectiveness against breast cancer.

Q. What are the other applications of functionalized SWCNTs outside of medicine that you are working on? Are there applications in analytical chemistry?

A: SWCNTs are added to polymer blends to make them stronger. We examine analogous SWCNT-monomer complexes, in which the monomers are organic compounds with C-H bonds, in order to better explore the interactions between the components. We do this by comparing the NMRs of each organic monomer with and without SWCNTs. The NMR signals of protons, which are close to SWCNTs, are moved downfield; the closer protons are to SWCNTs, the more they are shifted downfield.

Q. What are the challenges when attempting to functionalize SWCNTs?

A: Proton signals may not be observed for all protons of groups that are covalently attached to SWCNTs. This is because SWCNTs are not fluxional, and atoms directly attached to them may similarly not have sufficient degrees of freedom to allow their protons to “spin”. However, most of our studies have involved SWCNT complexes, which do not have covalent bonds to SWCNT. This makes them more flexible and capable of giving a good proton NMR signal, which we have been able to obtain.

Q. Where does analytical chemistry feature in the show Breaking Bad? How accurate is the science in the show?

A: The science in the show is pretty accurate, except where they knowingly took some artistic license. I think that is ok, because after all the show is fiction, and not science education. Analyses of the chemical intermediate and final products from the meth synthesis are shown or discussed frequently in the show.

Q. What impact do you think the show has on the reputation of science?

A: I think Vince’s example of getting the science right will set a higher bar for other Hollywood producers to follow. I think the show is increasing the interest of the next generation in science greatly; science is portrayed as sexy and powerful quite often in Breaking Bad. Scientists are portrayed as powerful and respected; however, there is also a moral to the show that one should lead a good life or you could lose everything that really matters.

Q. Where do you see your research going in the future?

A: I will continue my work functionalizing and characterizing SWCNTs, as well as increasing my activities in chemical education research. I have heard so many people say that organic chemistry is hard, that I have become determined to make organic chemistry easier to learn.

Dr. Donna J. Nelson is a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma (Oklahoma, USA). Nelson specializes in organic chemistry, which she both researches and teaches. Nelson’s career has focused on five primary areas of research generally categorized in two areas, scientific research and America’s scientific readiness. Within scientific research, Nelson’s areas have been: (1) mechanistic patterns in alkene addition reactions and (2) single-wall carbon nanotube (SWCNT) functionalization and analysis. Under America’s scientific readiness, she focuses on (3) science education, which includes classroom innovations and correcting organic chemistry textbook inaccuracies; (4) ethnic and gender diversity among highly-ranked science departments of research universities; and (5) improving the presentation of science and images of scientists to the public, such as serving as a science advisor to the AMC television show Breaking Bad.

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