Dr. Marius Stan: breaking stereotypes by Breaking Bad

Scientist on the hit TV series talks about connections between science, art and cinema

At Argonne National Laboratory, Dr. Marius Stan is a physicist and chemist. But outside the world of science, he is better known as Bogdan Wolynetz, the carwash owner in the Emmy Award-winning television series Breaking Bad.

For a long time, Dr. Stan kept his dual lives separate and mostly secret. Now he is discussing the connections between art and science "so that young people appreciate that science is not a boring profession, and that scientists can be really cool."

On July 17, he will give a livestreamed lecture at Argonne titled Science and Cinema: Examining the unexpected connections between the two fields.

In addition to his work at Argonne, where he is a senior computational energy scientist, Dr. Stan recently assumed the post of National Technical Director for Advanced Modeling and Simulation for the US Department of Energy in Washington, DC. Previously he was  a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Elsevier's Journal of Nuclear Materials and a member of the organizing committee  for the upcoming NuMat 2014 conference, organized by Elsevier.

Recently, science writer Marilynn Larkin interviewed Dr. Stan about how he became involved in the TV series and why he feels that art and science are closely related.[divider]

How did you land a recurring role on one of the most popular TV series in the United States?

Bryan Cranston (center), who played Walter White in Breaking Bad, surrounded by Marius Stan's family (Photos courtesy of Marius Stan) I was living and working in New Mexico when a call went out for extras  (background players) for the series pilot. My son and daughter really wanted to go, so we drove to Albuquerque and the whole family auditioned. All four of us were cast for the pilot, and I was chosen to have one line as the carwash owner. Then, as the series progressed, the producers decided my character  should be a recurring one, and I was called back a number of times every season.

Did you also serve as a science consultant to the show, even informally?

No. Not only did I not want to go there, I wasn't allowed to. They had their own scientific advisors, and because of legal issues we could not engage in any discussions about the science presented in the series. In fact, for a long time, no one on the set even knew I was a scientist, just as many of  my colleagues down the hall at Los Alamos and then Argonne did not know I was in the show for more than a year. I simply didn't mention it.

Why did you decide to talk about it now?

Back then, I enjoyed the element of surprise. I liked being "discovered" — my colleagues would come by, knock on my door and say, "I saw you on TV last night!" But now I have two messages I would like to bring to people. First, I want to promote the idea that there is interplay between science  and art, and that it would be good to try to bring them together. The second message is that science is not a dry, boring profession. Scientists can be cool; we do fascinating stuff. So I am encouraging younger people to look at science as a potential career that can be interesting and exciting.

In many people's minds, a scientist goes into a lab wearing a coat and spends long hours mixing chemicals. That's certainly not always the case. Science today is spectacular; it involves technology, computers and art. It's a great career to pursue and I would like to be an advocate for science as a  profession to embrace.

Do you see anything in your own sensibilities or personality that might have drawn you both to science and acting?

Dr. Marius Stan with Vince Gilligan, creator, producer and head writer for Breaking Bad.I believe that one should try many things in life and see what fits well. So I do try many things. In addition  to acting in the series, I wrote a book of short stories that was published in September 2013 in my native language, Romanian, and I am hoping an edition in English, entitled A Few Days, will be out by the end of the  year. Yes, I am a scientist by profession. But I don't let my profession define me.

Would you say this is something more scientists need to do? That too many define themselves by their work and don't think outside the box?

I don't like to generalize, but I would say that, based on my experience, it would be good for every scientist to be somehow connected to art — not necessarily acting, but whatever they like, be it painting, music, sculpting …

Why is that?

Art provides us with a larger stage for the imagination to work. Although it may not provide specific solutions to scientific problems, it often gives a fresh perspective, a new way of looking at things. I also see an interest in the arts community in using science more and more. An example is digital  photography. I have friends who are photographers, and they understand digital technology better than many engineers. Those who get really into it use computational science to create computer animations in movies. So I see how the two communities are diffusing into each other and learning from each other.

I also see this connection starting to occur in the school curriculum. For example, my son is studying material science, and yet many of his electives were related to art. The same is true for my daughter. She is studying neuroscience but she also took art classes.

Will you be discussing this convergence in your lecture about science and cinema?

That talk will include a few video clips from movies or TV series that relate to science, and scientific computer simulations that also connect with cinematography. Many connections are a result of my investigation and interest in the area, and I will be referring to a couple of books that discuss  in detail how science and technology are converging with art (see Resources). I will also be showing a number of scientific computer simulations and images that are simply beautiful.

Why did you go into computational science as a career? What attracted you to your current work?

Dr. Marius Stan (front row left) with the cast of Breaking Bad.It is all about math. Mathematics is a skill and a passion that I've been carrying with me for years. Although my BS is in physics and my  PhD is in chemistry, Mathematics is the love of my scientific life. The explosion of computer hardware and software was a wonderful development that happened while I was working as a scientist. It drove my interest to computational science, which involves solving scientific problems by developing mathematical  models and running computer simulations. Computation expands the investigation domain beyond the limits of experimental techniques into a world of imaginary states. I often use in my presentations a quote from Pablo Picasso: "Everything you can imagine is real." My imagination runs on an expanded brain  that includes supercomputers.

Did you engage in any artistic pursuits as a child, and did your parents encourage you?

I grew up in Romania and, as a child and teenager, I was interested in literature, both reading and writing. I wrote and published poetry in Romanian in local anthologies. My parents were very supportive, both morally (approving of my "waste of time") and financially (buying books), although  my interest in literature did not make much sense to them. Recently, my parents were thrilled to read my book of short stories, and found it surprisingly interesting and well written. They even asked me if I wrote it myself!

Back to Breaking Bad. Was there anything that surprised you when you were working on the show?

A number of things surprised me, but what struck me most was how much time everybody spent thinking and discussing exactly what was going to happen. And when they came together on the set, they were so well organized — down to the minute! Everybody knew what to do, and everybody was engaged and  focused. I saw a lot of effort and discipline in an area I had thought didn't need that.

[pullquote align="right"]"I realized that if I want to be a free thinker and think outside the box, I need to be very well organized and disciplined when I do the work."[/pullquote]

I had always thought art doesn't need discipline. But actually it was very important for everybody to be on the set at the right time and do the right thing, and that's something I'm definitely going to talk about. It was a lesson for me. I realized that if I want to be a free thinker and think outside  the box, I need to be very well organized and disciplined when I do the work. Working on the set made a huge impression on me.

What do you say to scientists or other people who ask how they can do what you've done?

I tell them they should not aim to do what I did; rather, they should dare to do what they are most inclined to do. People should follow their dreams. It doesn't have to be acting in a TV series.

Will you audition for other TV series in the future?

Yes. I now have an agent who works on that aspect. But it's important that I still have plenty of time to dedicate to science. So if I do take on another role or do some other type of work related to TV or cinema, it definitely will be something that is not very time consuming. I do not intend to become  a professional actor.

Nevertheless, I assume you got right into the professional unions without any trouble?

Yes. I am a member of SAG-AFTRA, and I participate in their events and vote for the best actors. So I'm part of their family now, and it's a lot of fun!

Livestreamed lecture: "Science and Cinema – the unexpected connections"

Watch online via Argonne's livestream channelDr. Stan's research at Argonne National Laboratory is aimed at discovering or creating better materials for energy applications (e.g., more efficient batteries for the national electric grid, safer nuclear reactors). He also played Bogdan Wolynetz, the carwash owner in the Emmy Award-winning TV series Breaking Bad. In his lecture, he will explore the unexpected links between science and filmmaking, using examples from computational science and his experience on the set of the TV series. Here is an excerpt from the trailer for the lecture:

I do believe that scientists and movie makers are creators — driven by curiosity and the need to communicate knowledge in the case of scientists, and emotion in the case of artists and movie makers. Both fields are interested in developing and maintaining forces — between atoms, in the case of the scientific models I'm working on, or between characters and people in a movie. This attraction and rejection between entities is a theme that recurs in many of the scientific papers we've published and some of the movies I've seen. I found it intriguing, interesting and somehow providing an unexpected link between science and cinema.

The event: Science and Cinema: Lecture and Q&A with Dr. Marius Stan for the Argonne OutLoud Public Lecture Series

Location: Auditorium Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory

Date: Thursday, July 17, 2014

Time: 6:30 - 8 p.m. CDT | 7:30 - 9 pm EDT (with a poster session for the first half hour)

Livestream: The event will be broadcast live on Argonne's live stream channel.

Social media: On Twitter, participate in a live chat and submit questions for the event by using the hashtag #ScienceAndCinema.

Registration: For the live event, register here. No registration is necessary for live streaming

Related materials: Dr. Stan's suggested reading for audience members:

Watch a preview

Video by Argonne National Laboratory

Sneak peek at Dr. Stan's slides

Here are a few of the slides Dr. Stan plans to use in his presentation, tying the science in with the theme of "Science and Cinema":

Theoretical and computational methods used in advanced modeling and simulation cover multiple time and length scales. I use these methods to understand exisiting materials and to design better ones.

By coupling multi-scale methods, we zoom in and out of materials to investigate their properties. This is similar to optical or electronic microscopy but operates in a virtual, computational domain.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Marilynn LarkinMarilynn Larkin is an award-winning science writer and editor who develops content for medical, scientific and consumer audiences. She was a contributing editor to The Lancet and its affiliated medical journals for more than 10 years and a regular contributor to the New York Academy of Sciences' publications and Reuters Health's professional newsfeed. She also launched and served as editor for of Caring for the Ages, an official publication of the American Medical Directors Association. Larkin's articles also have appeared in Consumer Reports,Vogue, Woman's Day and many other consumer publications, and she is the author of five consumer health books.

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