From Doodling to a Career: Focus on Donald Bliss

When Donald Bliss was growing up, he was constantly drawing and doodling.

“In high school, my biology teacher, Clark Harris, gave me bonus points for my illustrations in my lab reports,” said Bliss, the videographics lead in NLM’s Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications’ Audiovisual Program Development Branch. “And sometimes, I’d even go from an A to an A-plus because of my pictures. The same thing happened in chemistry.”

headshot of Donald Bliss

Donald Bliss

His love of science led him to study biology as a step toward medical school until a poster changed his life.

The poster addressed the question: What can you do with a biology degree?

One of the answers spoke to Bliss: medical illustration.

The idea that this was a profession never occurred to him. Indeed there are only a few thousand professional medical illustrators in the country.

Bliss set out for the career center at Missouri State University and went through boxes of dusty vocation guides until he stumbled upon a pamphlet on the field and places to study. Upon graduation, Bliss moved to Baltimore to start his master’s degree in medical illustration at Johns Hopkins University.

For two years, he pursued his MA at Hopkins, often studying alongside medical students on the career path he had once thought would be his.

He worked at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine before accepting a job doing medical animation at a startup in the Midwest, back in the 1990s when interactive educational CDs were popular.

But one afternoon at work, he learned the business had “collapsed.” He needed another job.

In 2000, he accepted a position as a medical illustrator at NIH. Bliss began in the NIH Medical Arts Branch of the Office of Research Services.

At NIH Medical Arts, Bliss says, “We serviced the entire NIH community.” He loved the cutting-edge science and contributing to research. On more than one occasion, Bliss was even named as a co-author on papers. The work was fast-paced and exciting.

And yet five years into the job, NLM wooed him away with a position in the Audiovisual Program Development Branch that would allow him to work on longer-term research projects.

The question

Representation of red blood cells

Red blood cells from an animation about a project to automatically detect the malaria parasite in blood films.

Bliss is always asking, “How can we show this?”

Even when he’s not asked.

Recently a scientist from the Communications Engineering Branch within NLM’s Lister Hill Center came down to the basement to ask about borrowing a tripod to make an instructional video.

Or so he thought.

By the time Bliss was finished talking with him, the video moved from being strictly instructional to inspirational.

“We said how about we make a video that tells how serious a problem malaria is, how much of the problem is a lack of trained pathologists, how NLM’s app can help with diagnosis, and then explain how to get involved,” said Bliss. “What they’re doing is amazing. It has the potential to revolutionize how malaria is diagnosed.”

Great scientific stories

“I love helping people with these great scientific stories,” Bliss said. “I want to communicate to the world what we’re doing here. We can tell a story faster and grab the audience’s attention.”

Light pink membranes encase T-cells, creating a flower-like structure

“Dendritic Petals”

Bliss’ model of a dendritic cell drew a lot of attention at NIH.

“Most textbook models of dendritic cells show a cell body with finger-like appendages,” said Bliss. But his model looks more like a rose.

“Working with the National Cancer Institute, NLM’s conceptual model was developed from observations of focused-ion beam scanning EM [electron microscopy] data represented by the background image,” said Bliss. “The data show HIV-laden dendritic cells extending wide sheets of membrane to encase T-cells.”

NLM staff voted for his floral-like image to represent NLM in a science and art contest for the federal Combined Federal Campaign to raise money for charities.

Bliss understands the importance of his work to focus attention and help tell complex stories. He said, “I’ve heard scientists admit that when they look at scientific journals, they’ll flip through and stop when they see something interesting.”

The thrill

“After all the years I’ve been doing this, it’s still a thrill to use what I understand of the science to produce something that the scientist hadn’t thought of and to contribute to the overall understanding of the research,” said Bliss. “Sometimes, I can’t believe I get paid to draw and have this much fun.”

But what if Bliss hadn’t seen that poster about options for biology majors? What would he be doing?

“I’d probably be a doctor who doodles.”