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COVID-19 Illustration by UGA grads

Dawgs design CDC’s COVID-19 graphic

For Dan Higgins (BFA ’93) and Alissa Eckert (BFA ’04), their days sheltering in place aren’t that different than those of their friends and neighbors in Atlanta or for their fellow Dawgs throughout the Bulldog Nation. They are balancing teleworking with homeschooling children and calming older relatives they can no longer visit. For Dan, that means creating a ballet studio where the sofa once sat. For Alissa, it means becoming a kindergarten and third grade teacher. What does set them apart is that they also make time for interviews with The New York Times. That’s because this dynamic duo created the ominous image of the COVID-19 virus that appears on nearly every news broadcast, in countless publications, internet outlets and splashed across social media feeds.

You see, in addition to being University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Lamar Dodd School of Art alumni, Dan and Alissa are medical illustrators with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Alissa remembers receiving a phone call on a Tuesday in January. A new virus that originated in China was spreading rapidly and the public needed to understand the gravity of the situation. An arresting visual would give the virus a face, making tangible something people can’t see with the naked eye. Dan and Alissa worked together to research and pose questions to the subject matter experts in the lab at the CDC. Armed with that information, Dan jumped on the World Protein Data Bank and downloaded images of each of the three main proteins that make up the virus. Pulling those files into a data visualization tool, he was able to export them as three-dimensional (3D) images.

S Protein Process

Process of turning the S protein from the World Protein Data Bank into a 3D image. (Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins/CDC)

It was Alissa who combined those pieces together to begin to form the image that is so familiar today. With input from CDC scientists, they identified how many of each protein to show, how the spatial distancing should appear and where the lighting should come from in order to establish the proper depths. Dan and Alissa muted the colors to convey the seriousness of the situation. They were careful not to make the virus look playful.

As Alissa explains, “We didn’t want it to look like a toy.”

They created a high contrast image with strong details and textures, elements that bring the virus to life and make it seem real and touchable. After an intense seven straight days of work, the pair finalized the now-famous image for approvals on the following Monday morning.

COVID-19 Illustration by UGA grads

“Beauty Shot” of the novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19 (Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins/CDC)

Since then, they have animated the virus image, creating a version that rotates in hopes of giving it more life. They have also lent their talents to symptom illustrations and the creation of graphics for social media to further help the public understand the virus and its impact. [Two PDF fliers – Prevention & Symptoms] During an outbreak, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation that finds Dan and Alissa alternating with others on their team to be on call for evening and weekends.

The Dawg Squad

Speaking of their team, it’s a group of eight members (six medical illustrators and two non-medical illustrators), five of whom are UGA alumni. Alissa explains that the world of medical illustration is a small one. A master’s degree in medical illustration is only offered by three accredited medical universities in the United States, and one in Canada. The path for many begins with the University of Georgia, specifically in the Lamar Dodd School of Art.

The CDC Dawg Squad

The CDC Dawg Squad of scientific/medical visualization experts – Front row: Stephanie Pfeiffer Rossow (BSA ’13), Alissa Hogan Eckert (BFA ’04), Jennifer Hulsey Oosthuizen (BFA ’05); Back Row: Dan Higgins (BFA ’93), Meredith Boyter Newlove (BFA ’04) (photo provided by Dan Higgins)

The UGA Connection

When Dan and Alissa attended the University of Georgia, the art school was in the mid-century modern building that now houses the College of Environment + Design on North Campus. (The art school’s main building is now located on East Campus.) Although they graduated more than a decade apart, they both reminiscence about late nights in the studio and walking through North Campus to go downtown to the art store.

Dan always had a passion for art and science. He took many undergraduate sciences courses and majored in graphic design through the art school, which wasn’t named for Lamar Dodd until 1996. He said his graphic design coursework prepared him for his role at the CDC because of its emphasis on layout and design to tell a story. His advice for students who wish to pursue a career like his? Pair graphic design courses with medical illustration to better understand the importance of establishing a hierarchy to the flow of information and learn how to lead the eye to help convey a story. He mentions Alex Murawski as a UGA professor who had a positive impact on him. After UGA, Dan enrolled at the University of Illinois in Chicago to pursue a Master in Biomedical Visualization. There, he took art classes, of course, but also courses like Gross Anatomy and Physiology alongside medical students.

Dan Higgins UGA CDC

Dan with his parents at the UGA Art School’s Graphic Design Show his senior year in 1993. (photo provided by Dan Higgins)

Alissa majored in scientific illustration at UGA. She cites professor Gene Wright as a major influence in her time at Lamar Dodd. She credits the program with preparing her for graduate school and her eventual career at the CDC by emphasizing professionalism, presentation skills and directed studies that required hands-on work. She began at the CDC in 2006, right after completing her master’s degree in medical illustration from Medical College of Georgia. Her advice for anyone who wants to follow in her path? Get a background in both traditional and digital arts and become adept in two- and three-dimensional animation.

Alissa Eckert UGA CDC

Alissa hanging with Hairy Dawg in Athens (photo provided by Alissa Eckert)

Dan and Alissa have worked together for 14 years. They sit across from one another at the CDC and collaborate on many projects, although it is rare that their images are turned around as fast as the COVID-19 one—or garner as much international attention.

In an email exchange, Lamar Dodd’s Kate Arnold conveyed to Alissa that the iconic image is now burned into her consciousness. She says she pictures it when deciding whether to touch something in the grocery store. Alissa loved hearing that. “That’s a perfect example of why we do this,” she says.

Asked if there was one message they would like to get out to the Bulldog Nation, Alissa said, “Hunker Down. Wait it out.” Dan adds, “Staying home is the most important thing.”

COVID-19 Insights

The Goal is Education
Helping people visualize the virus isn’t so much about accurately representing what it would look like under a microscope, but more about conveying why it is dangerous.

The virus can’t reproduce on its own. The virus hijacks healthy host cells, and it is these pirated cells that reproduce the virus. The image is intended to visually explain how that occurs.

Spike or S proteins – these are the spikey red protrusions in the image. These clumps of proteins attach the virus onto the host cell. It is these spikes that create the halo, or corona, around the virus. Alissa and Dan decided to highlight the S protein with the red color and plentiful number in the image because the barbs best communicate how the virus latches onto a healthy cell.

Envelope or E Proteins – these are the yellow specks in the image. They represent the smallest of the three main proteins that make up the virus. It is these proteins that channel through the membrane to gain access into the healthy cell.

Membrane or M Proteins – these are the orange crumbs in the image. They are the most abundant of the three proteins, they give form to the virus. This protein fuses with the membrane of the healthy cell.

Body – the gray surface in the image. This represents the envelope that surrounds the nucleus of the virus. Dan and Alissa decided to create a shadowy, highly textured surface that almost invites touch. Implying a tactile experience helps an abstract concept seem more concrete.

The most important thing to know about the virus is that it cannot spread on its own. People spread it.

Visit the CDC website to learn more. Discover more about UGA’s role in battling COVID-19, and visit UGA’s COVID-19 Information and Resources page to access a wealth of information gathered in one place.

Alumni spotlight: Chuck McCarthy

We caught up with Chuck McCarthy (AB ’03), artist, actor and founder of The People Walker, to talk about how his UGA experience led him to an unexpected, but satisfying, career path. McCarthy’s one-of-a-kind business is a combination of the services provided by a personal trainer and a dog walker. The People Walker’s mission is to connect people who want to go on a walk with walking partners.

Chuck McCarthy, The People Walker

What did you want to be when you grew up?                      

I wanted to go into medicine because my grandfather was a doctor. I originally started school as a pre-med major but then went into the art school. I didn’t know what I specifically wanted to be, but I knew I had to do something creative. Art school prepared me for life because it was so subjective. There was no right or wrong answer for most things in the art world. That’s true for a lot of things when you graduate.

Walk me through the foundation of your business, The People Walker. Tell me about the very first moment this brilliant idea came about.

At first, the idea came up as a joke. I was looking for a way to make money while getting more exercise, so I thought about being a dog walker. But I didn’t want to pick up dog poop. There’s a lot of personal trainers and dog walkers in Los Angeles, so I thought maybe I’ll just start walking with people.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were people who would want or need this service. People could use my company for two services: motivation and safety. We know that we need exercise but it can be hard to motivate ourselves to walk. Even the most motivated people need someone to hold themselves accountable. Then, safety was also an essential service. A few years ago, my mom went on a walk alone in the woods and fell. She broke her leg in about seven different places. People need safety from falling down, being alone, being cat-called or being bothered by others.

Chuck McCarthy, The People Walker

What is your favorite thing to do in Los Angeles?

I love to go on hikes. Even with all the walking I do, I still find myself finding new paths in the park that I live next to. You feel like an explorer when you find new places by yourself. There’s a book about a lot of the secret stairs here in L.A. but I’ve been reluctant to read it because I want to find them myself.

What advice would you give to graduating seniors and recent graduates?

Find a job and don’t be scared to do something that isn’t exactly what you want to do. But, don’t feel like you have to stay in that job. A lot of times, people discover that they are working at a job that can lead to other opportunities. Get your foot in the door, but don’t get your foot stuck in the door. That sounds like a good saying, right?

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken that resulted in the most rewarding outcome?

Moving to California was a pretty big risk. It led to the life that I live today.

What do you know for sure?

There are always gonna be problems in life. But life is really about trying to deal with those problems. It’s always easier to deal with those problems if you have the help and support from other people.

What will you never understand? 

Why someone would go anywhere other than UGA.

Is there anything you wish you could change when looking back at your career decisions? 

No, because I think that everything you do leads to the next part of your life. You can’t be in this moment right now in your life without having made the mistakes that you’ve made, the wins that you’ve had and the right decisions you’ve made – you went to the high school, you went to and played whatever sports you did as a kid. Whether or not you won or lost a game, passed or failed the test, or lost money or made money that has led up to where you are in your life. You can’t really get rid of one thing without getting rid of everything else.