Alissa Eckert is a medical illustrator for the Centers for Disease control. Her work is now famous throughout the world thanks to the Novel Corona Virus illustration that she created in January 2020. An accomplished scientist in her own rite, she is also a talented and capable artist with an eye toward developing images that evoke emotion and visceral reactions.
There’s a lot that goes into medical illustration. Teams within the CDC impart information about structure and composition – protein distance – phylogenetic trees, but there’s a
marketing bent, too. Yes, the Corona Virus even has its own branding and style guide – including recommended colors, emotional undertones, and more.
The Corona virus isn’t Alissa’s first rodeo, either. From the Corona Virus, to SARS, Ebola, and Zika, she’s seen and illustrated it all. Take a look through the CDC’s 2019 Annual Report on Antibiotic Resistance and you’ll see her masterpieces throughout its pages. Gonorrhea is her favorite…
Listen in as Alissa talks about how to merge a love of science and art into a career, how to streamline your message, in art and in any presentation, and take a look at her personal portfolio.
JoJo Platt 0:03
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Skraps, I'm JoJo Platt, one of your hosts along with Arun Sridhar. We've developed this podcast to help highlight and share the stories behind the science and scientists that influence our lives. Our mission is to make the process of scientific and technological discoveries better understood and to give a more personal access to the people behind those discoveries. We'd like to ask you to take a moment or two to share Skraps with your friends and family via your preferred social media outlet and to subscribe and rate us on your favorite podcast platform. It definitely helps us to get Skraps in front of more people. Also, if you have topics or people that you'd like us to cover, shoot us a note, you can reach us through most every social media platform or through our website skrapsofbrilliance.com.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, no single image says more in 2020 than the moon-like gray sphere with angry triangular pompoms dotting its surface and the freckled orange invaders that is the face of the novel coronavirus. But this image that we all know and possibly loathe so much is more than just a graphic representation of a biological enemy. There are deliberate decisions that go into the rendering of this image and others.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're here with the creator of the CDCs now infamous Coronavirus image Alissa Eckert. So, you were asked to create this image back in January, well before the world went on lockdown. Did you have any inkling at the time that you were commissioned to do this of the magnitude of what you were working on?
Alissa Eckert 2:13
Well, I wouldn't say we had an inkling of where it was going to go. We knew there was something not right. And there was something looming. We didn't know how big but, there was something that we needed to start preparing people for. The fact that the emergency operation center was open at CDC, that's a pretty big deal. Things like that have been done in the past for Ebola, or H1N1, and Zika, you know, so this was another big threat that was coming upon us. So, we had to get ready and start prepping all our materials and everything.
JoJo Platt 2:44
So you had a behind the scenes heads up? In a way?
Alissa Eckert 2:47
Yeah, a little bit. I mean, I think there were a little rumblings in the news here and there. But in our world, it's talked about a lot more, I guess.
JoJo Platt 2:57
And you previously mentioned that there were certain almost human-like characteristics that went into this image, can you tell us more about what those characteristics were, and how you distill which characteristics were the most important?
Alissa Eckert 3:14
I'm thinking maybe you're talking about sort of the design and the realism that we use and that sort of thing and how we brought those features out?
JoJo Platt 3:23
Yes, you had previously talked about wanting to convey danger and other almost human characteristics.
Alissa Eckert 3:33
My idea was to use realism to sort of help someone understand that this thing actually exists. So that's why it is this very bold, striking image sort of in your face, and it looks like you could actually reach out and touch it, using realistic textures, maybe sort of a stony surface, that hard, plush feel, and realistic lighting, setups, all that kind of thing. And the whole point was to bring it back to impact and bringing out emotions and just putting it in your face. So you didn't know that this looming threat is real. That was sort of the goal.
Arun Sridhar 4:19
Yeah, that's great. I think it'll be useful to just pick a bit more into that thought process, about how such an image came to be. So clearly, you had a memo, or at least ask from the people that you work with, about why this needs to look a certain way. Can you actually just walk us through? If you just rewind the clock and you'll basically go back to the day when this actually happened? Just tell us how the sequence of events actually played out. Yeah, ultimately, for you to realize and depict the human life characteristics. Or have the virus that you had to ultimately illustrate. I assume this is a process. But, it's about how this whole thing kind of came to play and how the process actually works with you at CDC.
Alissa Eckert 5:14
It started in late January. It's actually January 21. I remember the night of it. It was a Tuesday night I got a phone call from one of our higher ups at CDC and within our division and just letting us know that we're getting ready, essentially. So Dan and I both, Dan Hagen's is the other person I worked with on this illustration. So immediately, then we started doing our research on what we needed to do for the illustration, learning more about this coronavirus, and what it is we have general because being we are medical illustrators, we have general knowledge of how viruses are structured. But we needed to learn more about what makes up this particular virus and what proteins and all that. And we were told that we needed something, they wanted it to be a little bit editorial and eye-catching sort of a little bit of drama to it, but nothing too overdone. It needed to be a serious tone. That's pretty much all we were told. And because they knew that we had the capabilities to do what they wanted, they were just kind of guiding us in that manner.
And so Dan, and I then the next day got together and started talking about what we were going to do. And after we did some research on the virus, we started looking around at what was available on I don't know if you've heard of the protein databank that's out there. And at that time, there wasn't anything available for this particular SARS virus. So, we had to improvise and start pulling information from the SARS or SARS virus and in doing research on what this particular one was going to include, so we knew that the proteins that I was going to have to use, and we were also given information from the GenBank. So the genomes that had just been posted and that sort of thing. And so we were looking at the phylogenetic tree and all that. And so realizing that it's pretty closely related to the old SARS virus. An
We then posed a lot of questions to the scientists at CDC. We don't want to bother them until we have everything together, we know we have all our questions that we want to ask and get it all together and make a list. And then I have our back and forth with them. And then that's what we did. They told us there wasn't really a lot that they could tell us at that time, you know, the distance between proteins or you know, the number of them on the surface and that sort of thing.
We kind of had to improvise and do the best we can based off of pictures, I mean, not pictures, but electron micrograph imagery, and maybe previous illustrations in the past.
At the same time, there was also a whole branding being developed, because we knew this was going to be big, right? So, branding being developed at CDC, but some of the graphic designers, and they were developing some of the look and feel for the color palette for the whole branding. There were swatches that I guess that we could kind of choose from and see what worked for us. We knew that we needed to work with something that was going to be a public health alert. And we needed to create something that was going to be thought provoking to people and make them realize that this was important.
We looked at the colors that we could choose from and started working with the red originally because what else says emergency alert like red? Then we chose to use the gray background because it really offset that red well. And we wanted to emphasize the spike protein that was the most important one that we wanted to talk about. And so the other colors that we put into there just sort of complimented that red that we used. And I can say that these colors were definitely the way that we wanted to go because I even tested the cooler color palette that that we had to choose from, the greens and blues, and it completely fell flat. It didn't speak to me at all. It just didn't say anything. So we knew what direction we needed to go ahead with. And so that's kind of where the colors came from, and where we went from there. After we built our structure, there was back and forth with the scientists at CDC to get clearance for this and also with the people in our creative department as well. Both sides giving me okay on it.
Arun Sridhar 9:36
So it's it's a fantastic kind of segue to the next point that we wanted to ask you about Alissa, which is, while you were speaking about how the image generation for the Coronavirus came to be you kind of spoke and you rattled off some of the terminologies that I think most scientists would know, especially in terms of looking at the genomic sequences or the genomic structure, the phylogenetic tree and, and the spike proteins, etc, etc. which comes from your experience of working in the CDC, but it also requires a certain degree of understanding of science. And, and although I think people would consider illustration to possibly be a non-scientific topic, I think we want to challenge that idea here and almost kind of go back to some of your roots. And can you actually describe how you ended up doing scientific illustration in the first place? So tell us about your journey. how you got to where you are today?
Alissa Eckert 12:53
Originally, I was always a student of, I'd say science and biology and that sort of thing. Even when I was young, that was one of my peak interest. But I was always drawing and doing art on the side as well. I remember in high school, I was loaded up with science and art classes, and even through college. But in college, I was a biology major and a pre-vet track. And I was planning on going to veterinary school when I was in my fourth year of undergrad, and I was working out of veterinary hospital getting all of the experience necessary and everything, but then someone told me, you know, you should look into medical illustration, you know, you have these talents in both fields, and you really seem like someone that would be good for that.
So I didn't even know it existed at the time. And I was like, oh, wow, I always wondered who did that sort of thing? Yeah, maybe I should look into this. And so I did, I called the UGA program, the University of Georgia had an undergraduate degree in scientific illustration that you could get, so I call and talk to the director there. And he's like, yeah, you know, I think this would be a great pick for you. Why don't you come check us out.
And so I did that. And so I changed schools moved an hour and a half away. And my fourth year of college just changed direction completely. Because I just felt like that made so much more sense. I, you know, I love biology and the idea of doing veterinary programs, but I was always kind of in the middle with that. But with my art classes, I always excelled in those classes. It just made sense to me that this is what I was supposed to do. And then after, so I went to the program for two years at UGA and got my degree in interdisciplinary studies in scientific illustration. It's literally a combination of biology and illustration. And then I went applied to the graduate program at Augusta University. It was called Medical College of Georgia back then, and went to grad school for two years in medical illustration.
And so, I should say a medical illustrator is actually a professional with advanced education in science, anatomy, and art. They typically will hold a master's degree in medical illustration, one of the programs and there's only three programs in the US through three accredited medical universities. And then there's one in Canada as well. So only a small number of students are actually accepted into these programs each year. And yet, in the master's degree programs can include Health Sciences with some of the advanced science courses at the medical students.
They work on operating room observations. Surgical illustration, can be traditional and digital arts 2d and 3d animation. And so, the purpose of the medical illustrators to actually translate this complex biological and medical information into visual representations, so that people can easily understand and taught to maintain aesthetics and accuracy and clarity all while doing that. So, you know, it really takes a specifically trained individual to be able to do these things, to have both mindsets.
Arun Sridhar 15:51
And just going back to the to the pivot that you actually had from being a fourth year major in the pre med program over to medical illustration. That's a pretty gutsy move. Yeah. At that time. So what was running through your head? I mean, did you actually feel comfortable and saying that, Okay, I'm going to go back to the thing that I was going to enjoy?
Alissa Eckert 16:16
I was pretty excited about the clarity of what I was about to do. I knew that it was a good choice. I, of course, I had people in the background that were telling me, are you crazy? You're on the track to be a veterinarian, and you want to go do art? It sounds weird. But that's you don't know what medical illustration is? It's actually a pretty good career path.
JoJo Platt 16:39
So are you. Are you an artist? That does science? Or are you a scientist that does art?
Alissa Eckert 16:45
That's a good question. I don't know, I am pretty ingrained in science. And I really liked the science. So I don't like to say that. I don't like to say art necessarily comes first. And it I for me is probably a 50/50 situation. I think a lot of medical illustrators think that way as well.
Jo Jo Platt 17:05
It sounds like you found the perfect fit for you the hybrid of art and biology? And are there other opportunities that you have to marry art and science and to make a career of it?
Alissa Eckert 17:22
Well, there's a lot of medical illustrators that do different things, some medical illustrators work in law firms, for instance, and work in the med legal field. So in the courtroom, you know, to explain an injury, a car crash or something and the injury that resulted. People work at different universities, medical device companies, textbooks, all kinds of different things within medical illustration that people do. And then even if within scientific illustration, a lot of that can be like people that you see at museums, the Smithsonian Museum, for instance, think about all the exhibits, the signs at the exhibits, and the animals that are drawn and or plants that are described with illustrations, parts of a plant. So the scientific illustrator did that.
Arun Sridhar 18:14
Yeah, which is, which is great. Um, can we I really love that you kind of see yourself as 5050 in terms of science and art. And I just want to kind of ask you another question about if we just look at creativity as a scientific process, which is, I think what you were you were alluding to, is that there is an element of rigor, there is an element of discipline, and there's an element of curiosity that ultimately underpins what you do. In terms of just the, and I think a lot of people would also want to illustrate some of their, especially the audience that we interact with on a day to day basis, they actually want to present their information in a very impactful way. And I think as JoJo said, A picture's worth 1000 words here, and you've You are a master at it, in terms of what you do, so if Can you just walk us through elements of what makes something impactful in terms of not just eye catching as and marketing, but really about when you create it think through the process of scientific illustration as a creative process? What are the things that you actually assimilate and ultimately have to execute such that the messaging comes absolutely clear, and this can be both just illustrations as well as some of the brochures and other things that CDC and other organizations like that in the world put out but just talk us through about how to distill that how you go about creating that aspect of it to ultimately creating an impactful piece as the as the end product.
Alissa Eckert 20:00
I think there's a lot of sort of fundamental core teachings that work here to sort of start, it could be a design, or it could be an illustration, it doesn't matter, they sort of work from the same thought process where you want to start from, what are you trying to teach a person and whether you're if you're working on a graphic design piece, your header is important, and you have your small subtitle sub header, it comes next and that sort of thing.
Users’ eyes follow this predictable reading path, you know, which these things can be culturally influenced where we're there, we're talking about left from right and right from left and that sort of thing. And so we want to sort of reinforce these natural patterns, and lead you users along like a cleverly constructed path to a desired goal. Or sometimes we may even want to break these patterns to highlight a focal point to our viewers. And so we think of the visual hierarchy.
When we're doing presentation of design elements in order of importance, we don't want to have everything the same on the page. People have short attention spans, so we need to catch them quick and then with your biggest points. And so we emphasize, we want to emphasize what you're trying to display to the viewer, if we're talking about a vessel in the brain, for example, we make that the heaviest and brightest piece on the page. And the most detailed item also, and it sort of can fade away as you move away from that.
We take artistic liberties throughout what we're trying to do. I guess other little key elements, a lot of times, it's better to use odd numbers than even numbers, if your elements on the page, don't center everything. Use the rule of thirds when you're laying out pieces, and don't try to cram everything into one design. That's the best piece of advice I can give somebody, we have to work with that all the time, you know, everybody wants to say as much as they can in the little square that they have. So it's good to break it down into multiple pieces. Or maybe just use that one image as a teaser for your your manuscript or journal that you have that you want to bring people back to. Just don't try put everything in one piece.
Jo Jo Platt 22:12
I think that this is spectacular advice ; I'm going to highlight this and I'm going to put it everywhere I possibly can. Because I think this is the best advice possible for PowerPoint presentations - getting rid of the mice type and making sure that that you're really using the appropriate images to convey your message and using them the right way.
Alissa Eckert 22:38
So that like on a PowerPoint slide on a PowerPoint slide. You don't want to put everything you're saying on the PowerPoint slide. You know, just a few key words to catch your attention. But right, I like deciding on those key messages and filtering them out. I think that's critical.
Jo Jo Platt 22:52
In addition to your now most famous best-selling piece of Coronavirus art, you've worked on a number of other high profile projects like Zika and last year's CDC annual report on antibiotic resistance and I've gone through that as well. We'll include it in the show notes, because it's really pretty spectacular artistically. What has been your favorite image in in your recent portfolio? what's been the most fun to work on? And how did you get there?
Alissa Eckert 23:34
I people laugh when I say this, but I think the most fun that I had was the one from the antibiotic resistance threats report is the gonorrhea piece. I had a lot of fun with that one because it has a lot of these little tendrils to it and it sort of come alive and you can make it just become a character in itself. Just this creepy crawly little, almost reminds me like a spider or something like that, you know, and it's really like crawling out of the page at you. So I anyway, I had a lot of fun working on that and just coming up with a concept for it. And I really am pleased with how that one actually turned out. And so that would probably be my number one I guess. And that set.
Jo o Platt 24:15
It's artistically very striking. But I think this is probably the only time in history that anybody ever said they had a lot of fun with gonorrhea.
Alissa Eckert 24:22
Arun Sridhar 24:27
And for the listeners, I think we're going to include that as a resource in the show notes here. Because it is a fantastic piece of illustration. And I was actually taken aback at how inviting some of those antibiotic illustrations were especially with respect to the little cilia and hairlike structures and what you read the tendrils, etc. Were coming out popping out on the page. And I also noticed, just as a fun aside that most of them were pink, a bit like it looked like your kids were watching trolls the movie. We kind of picked some of those bright colors from that and kind of made, made that into into a different type of religion. So just talking about the difference in color palettes, and to your point earlier about about COVID-19 versus the antibiotic resistance. And I think I really urge the listeners to actually go and take a look at these, the antibiotic resistance resource that we're going to include in the show notes to actually see how colors and depictions and illustrations can actually make something really impactful with completely what appears to me and so I'm no artist or no, Illustrator, it looks like completely different type of color palettes, to what you use for the, for the COVID. illustration.
Alissa Eckert 25:46
And I have to say part of the reason those colors are what they are and that piece up half the reason is because they wanted to it's the Gram stain colors purple and pink is what we were starting with for those. So we divided those up in that way. But then I also wanted to bring sort of a fun artistic design, I wanted them to be artistic pieces for that set of images. Almost like something you would see on a wall and your I don't know if your home but maybe a doctor's office, I don't know. But an art piece is what I was going for and the look and feel for those. And so it was a combination of how can you make take something like a Gram stain and make it beautiful, is what I was going for.
JoJo Platt 26:24
It definitely came through. And I know you worked on Zika. And instead of going for the biological elements, you went for the mosquito in that one came?
Alissa Eckert 26:33
Yeah, I did the virus and then I also did birth defect of the baby the microcephaly. And we did it, I did it the normal head and then a microcephaly and extreme microcephaly. Just to show the very end with the skull as well and to show the variations and instruct physicians around the world on how to properly measure because there is a very specific placement to measure the head. So they would know that, you know anyway and instructions on how to do that.
JoJo Platt 27:23
You also pursue art as a personal passion. And can you tell us about what's your favorite medium? What do you focus on? Are you a painter, a graphic artist? pen and ink? What's your personal art portfolio look like?
Alissa Eckert 27:48
Well, recently, I've been doing a lot of dog portraits, obviously I told you I was in you know, veterinary and all that. So I have a lot of dog people still do a lot of dog stuff. So a lot of people have been doing portraits for them a lot of my sort of my COVID projects, I guess. And so I've been doing a lot of graphite, and in pen and ink a lot of basic, non digital type of work, not more traditional type of things. And let's see, I did some pen, and I'm thinking about doing some watercolor and colored pencil next, but basically just traditional stuff. I've done a lot of graphite recently, though, for the most part.
Jo Jo Platt 28:27
That's great. Is there a way that we'll be able to share your portfolio in the show notes?
Alissa Eckert 28:35
For sure. I can send you over some dogs.
Jo Jo Platt 28:39
And how can people follow you on social media? This is a compelling field of science. And I'd like to make sure that people have access to understanding that there are more opportunities to combine art and science and make it into a career.
Alissa Eckert 29:01
Yeah, I think the most work-related sort of social media I have is on Twitter, I'm at – Eckert multimedia is what it stands for stuff.
Jo Jo Platt 29:17
We’ll definitely include that too.
Alissa Eckert 29:19
And so once in a while I post an illustration here and there, maybe like some of the dogs are up there, for instance. It's great, and other little quirky things about me.
Arun Sridhar 29:31
That's fantastic. So I just want to kind of ask you one, one kind of final question from our side, which is, if you were to give an advice to anybody to make an impactful pitch, presentation, illustration message, let's just keep it as message. What would be your key elements that for a non technical audience that they should keep in their mind?
Alissa Eckert 29:59
Well, I think the first thing that comes to mind is distill your information down to the most important piece of information that you have. Just take out all the excess garbage and focus on what your audience is there to learn. And just keep it concise and to the point.
JoJo Platt 30:19
I think that's expert advice across the board, whether it's an illustration or scientific communication at any level. And I, I'm really glad that you were able to join us today. I've I saw that illustration earlier this year, not knowing the impact that it would have on our lives. And I think it's fascinating to have a chance to interact with the person who created such a meaningful image and to bring some art into an otherwise ugly situation. So thank you so much for joining us and we look forward to hopefully you'll have a you'll be able to illustrate a vaccine for us - something nice, right?
Alissa Eckert 31:00
Well, thank you guys for having me. Appreciate it.
Arun Sridhar 31:03
Thank you so much.
Some recent graphite illustrations from Alissa Eckert's personal portfolio