The Donna Cox Legacy: Inspiring and Visualizing the Future

07.30.21 -

by Sophie Bui

Donna with Art

Icon. Pioneer. Trailblazer. Mentor. These are some of the superlatives used to describe Chief Scholar and professor Donna J. Cox and her impact on art, science, technology, and society over the last four decades at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Outside of her tremendous work in academia and research, such as coining and defining the term “Renaissance Teams,” Cox is a revered film industry expert who has worked on numerous stunning cinematic projects, including IMAX’s “Cosmic Voyage,” “A Beautiful Planet,” and “Hubble 3D.” Her contributions to innovation, society and the world are monumental, helping pave the way for women in STEAM and inspiring the future. Here, we celebrate her legacy and notable milestones throughout her life and career.

Excelling in Enid

Collage of Donna Early Life

She came from humble beginnings in Enid, Oklahoma, a town 90 miles north of Oklahoma City known for agricultural trade, farming, and a U.S. military air force base. Cox’s father fell victim to World War II and passed away four months after her birth, leaving her twenty-four-year-old mother, Imogene, widowed in a rural town to care for an infant and seven-year-old. However, Imogene was not alone. Her mother, Sadie, a widow and survivor of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and Great Depression, helped raise Cox and her brother Jimmy on a homestead settled initially in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

Donna Family GIF

“These two strong, determined women reared and supported us without high school educations and husbands during a social era that offered women limited workforce opportunities compared to men,” says Cox. “My grandmother worked the night shift and slept during the day to care for my brother and me while my mother worked as a day shift waitress, caring for us at night. I learned how to do certain things and take care of myself early in life, hoping to lessen the stress and load my mother and grandmother carried daily. Their perseverance inspired me to take risks and make the most out of life, regardless of the odds, exhibiting the power of women and collaboration.”

Donna Collage of Childhood

She developed a passion for art at a very young age, drawing and crafting whenever time allowed. This passion followed her throughout grade and high school, where she consistently tested well in art, math and science. While the era’s social climate and gender expectations prevented her from participating in more male-only classes like woodworking, she continued forward, using art and an engineering mindset in home economics activities like crocheting. Cox warm-heartedly credits her mother for her 3D visualization skills sharing that Imogene was a talented seamstress who would make her and her brother nice clothes without exact measurements. Imogene would look at them from all angles, imagine the apparel and fit, then use a manual Singer sewing machine to turn her vision into reality.

From Denver to Digital Art

Donna High School Grad

In 1967 Cox graduated from high school, marking the first significant milestone in her life as the first person in her family to receive a high school diploma. This pivotal moment fueled her passion and hunger for art, knowledge, and creation, bringing the realization that she must leave Enid to nurture and breathe it to life. Filled with a desire to explore, Cox moved to Denver to start her next chapter. Over the next couple of years, she took on several roles, wife, mother, student, worker, and artist. By the 1970s, she began showing drawings in an art gallery at Pike Place Market in Seattle, taking night classes, and working her way up the corporate ladder to support her family.

Donna Digital Art GIF

“The Women's movement of the 60s and 70s really impacted my adult life,” says Cox. “It gave me role models and inspiration to do more. It also gave me a sense of independence and responsibility as a woman out in the world. Regardless of my background, I should take the opportunity to go to school, advance my education, and make a career out of doing what I love.”

Donna with Compulage Art

While managing science projects in a corporate research division in Seattle, Cox decided to quit her job and return to the midwest to enroll as a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin. Here she faced a significant dilemma – figuring out what she wanted to focus on for her life’s work.

Donna in College

“I had this fierce conflict between doing art and doing science. I love science. I'm a research scientist,” says Cox. “I enjoy collecting data and learning about the possibilities enabled by obtaining and processing this information. For years, I’ve used personal data to understand and manage my health. And I love art and design. I love using visual tools, techniques, and methods to think and work through problems.”

Donna at an Art Show in Chicago

One day in Art History class, she had an epiphany. She did not have to choose between one or the other. Instead, she could do both. Through her own experiences, Cox knew that artists and scientists were already using digital technologies to progress and improve their fields. Learning about the relationship and history between art and technology in class enabled her to envision the future. She was looking through a textbook when it struck her. If digital technologies could advance each of these disciplines, they could also bring them together. Determined to find a synergy between art and science through technology, Cox decided to continue with graduate studies, receiving both Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees by 1985.

Fine Arts Grad to Supercomputing Lab

Donna with EVL Team in the 80s

She met University of Illinois Chicago professor Dan Sandin when he was a visiting lecturer at UW Madison during her final year at grad school. He visited the computer lab where Cox developed ICARE, an interactive software program capable of providing color mapping and generating color in digital images. Sandin was impressed with her work and introduced her to colleagues at UIC's Electronic Visualization Lab, known for its work in computer graphics. Cox encountered many people in various fields who shared her interests in using technology to benefit art and science.

NCSA AVL Team GIF

“During grad school, a vision emerged that art and science would converge through computer graphics technology and interdisciplinary teams,” says Cox. “Inspired by Renaissance artists who worked with scientists to create the foundations of botany and anatomy, I coined the term 'Renaissance Teams' during the summer before moving to the University of Illinois. It is a methodology to bring interdisciplinary teams together to solve grand challenges, especially with visualization. People with different backgrounds and knowledge working together toward a common goal. And it was just a natural and collaborative way of solving the problem by bringing together art, science, technology, and people.”

Donna at U of I in 1989

As she prepared for her move to Illinois to start her career as an assistant professor of photography at the U of I, a former professor told her about a soon-to-open supercomputing center and encouraged her to reach out to a man named Larry Smarr, the center’s founding director. Although hesitant due to her lack of experience with supercomputing, she knew she didn’t get this far by staying in her comfort zones. With the advancements in digital technologies and her work with EVL, Cox believed that art could be an effective tool that enables people to share knowledge, process complex datasets, and provide meaningful insights in a visually dynamic way. So she decided to take the leap and reach out to Smarr once she got settled in Urbana-Champaign.

Donna NCSA GIF

“I came in before the doors were open at NCSA in 1985 and began working with all of the research scientists as an artist,” says Cox. “I convinced them that they needed visually literate people to work with them on teams to visualize their data. It was as if I was the hand that fit the glove, contributing to their research projects in a way that they hadn’t done before. I was a pioneer, a research artist, and a faculty scientist working with researchers to visualize early data, changing the way scientific information was presented. I got to participate in all of the firsts and exciting times since the beginning of NCSA.”

Larry and Donna at Gathering

“I will never forget the day Donna Cox walked into my NCSA office,” says Smarr. “I knew she had recently joined the UIUC School of Art and Design but wasn’t sure what her work had to do with supercomputing. Once Donna started taking me through a white paper she had written, I became transfixed as she described the history of how technology, such as photography, had changed what artists were able to create. She proposed that NCSA should support 'Renaissance Teams,' combining computer artists, application scientists, and computer scientists to visualize complex computational results. I was so impressed I asked her to join NCSA as an adjunct faculty on the spot!”

Donna Acheivements GIF

From then on, Cox continued to break barriers and achieve many firsts and milestones. She established NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Lab, became the first Michael Aiken Endowed Chair at Illinois, and won multiple awards, including ACM SIGGRAPH’s Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art, IMERSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the rare IPS Innovation Technology Award. Reflecting on her life, Cox shared some of her favorite notable career moments and facts.

Memories and Milestones

1989 Simulation Journal

1988 — Cox collaborated with NCSA’s first Industrial Partner, Kodak, to create, publish and patent the first 3-dimensional computer graphics glyphs in the peer-reviewed “Simulation Journal.”

EduCom Conference Program

1990 — Cox was the first woman to give a keynote speech at the EDUCOM Conference, alongside former President Jimmy Carter and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

NSFnet Visualization Graphic

1992 — Cox and AVL’s Robert Patterson created the first data visualization of the emerging internet (funded by Rich Hirsch, NSF Program Director, who established the five NSF supercomputing centers). The NSFnet visualization is an icon of the emerging internet.

Donna Academy Awards GIF

1994 - 97 — Cox collaborated with NCSA Industrial Partner Motorola and convinced them to provide $5M in funding toward producing the IMAX film “Cosmic Voyage.” She worked with the Smithsonian and Pixar to set a precedent to use scientific data from supercomputers rather than special effects to make the film. “Cosmic Voyage” received an Academy Award nomination in 1997, and she attended the red carpet event with Patterson.

Donna and Bob CAVE

1997 — Along with Marcus Thiebaux, Cox and Patterson created and patented the first virtual reality camera-choreography system, called “Virtual Director,” referenced by many other patents from Google, Pixar, IBM, Sony, Autodesk, and others.

Donna at SIGGRAPH with Screen Presentation

2018 - 21 — Cox is the first art recipient of the University of Illinois’ Research Scholars. She championed women in technology and art during her academic career and recently published “New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts.”

AVL Films List

2021 — Under Cox’s leadership, the AVL team comprised of Kalina Borkiewicz, Robert Patterson, Stuart Levy, AJ Christensen, and Jeff Carpenter, has contributed scientific visualizations and co-produced more than 17 award-winning Giant Screen & IMAX Productions, 14 science documentaries, seven theater performances, and two feature films.

Donna Herstory Presentation

There are moments when Cox felt like her success was simply due to being in the right place at the right time. However, whether it was coincidence or fate, her success did not come easy. Breaking barriers and defying odds took hard work, sacrifice, and life-changing risks. She strove to rise above the expectations and break the glass ceiling to inspire and pave the way for the future generation of women innovators. Cox’s life story has two overarching themes that followed her through each success and feat – collaboration and persistence. The key takeaway is, when people value and respect each other’s differences and perspectives and work together to address real-world challenges, the possibilities are infinite.

Donna and Bob GIF

Cox retires this month with fellow AVL veteran Robert Patterson, NCSA research programmer who worked alongside her for over 30 years. “I can't believe I lived this life. Whenever I reflect on it, remembering my mother and grandmother, I am touched and inspired to continue forward,” says Cox. “I met kind people who gave me opportunities to prove myself. Things could have been very different if I didn’t have these genuine connections with people, data, science, art, and technology. From being the only person in my whole family to get a high school degree to being one of two people in the world to do what I do, I feel truly blessed.”

Recollections and Well Wishes

Cox has the lifelong goal of inspiring future generations of innovators, artists, researchers, and scientists. Touching many lives throughout her extensive career, we gathered some quotes from friends and colleagues on how she has impacted and inspired them.

Bill Gropp GIF

“Donna has inspired me to look not only at how computing can transform scholarship, including the humanities but also at how the humanities have lessons for computing. With the growing use of machine learning, these lessons are more important than ever. The films that Donna and her AVL team create not only illustrate the newest advances in science, but they also connect with us on a deeply personal level. I feel the awe, wonder, and joy of science when I see their work.”

— William “Bill” Gropp, ​​NCSA Director, Thomas M. Sibel Chair in Computer Science, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Larry Smarr Portrait

“Asking Donna Cox to join NCSA was one of the most important decisions I made as director. She transformed our culture and had a meteoric rise in fame, quickly becoming one of the country’s dominant creative forces in scientific visualization. Donna is an extraordinary individual, one of the most multi-faceted people I have ever known. One of the wonderful aspects of Donna was her ability to bring people together. In Spring 1986, Donna insisted I come to a campus talk by Tom DeFanti and Dan Sandin, co-directors of the Electronic Visualization Lab at our sister campus, the University of Illinois Chicago. Tom and Dan were legends in the computer graphics world, but this was the first time I had heard them describe their pioneering digital visualization work. We all became close friends and have collaborated ever since. This connection by Donna directly led to NCSA building the second virtual reality CAVE in the world, cloning the one first designed at EVL.”

— Larry Smarr, Founding Director of NCSA and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology

Ellen Sandor GIF

"Donna J. Cox is a living legend and an authentic pathfinder. It has been a joy and an honor to collaborate with her. In 1986, I had the privilege to work with Donna and her visionary colleagues at NCSA. Donna assembled her first 'Renaissance Team' and ‘collaboratory' of innovative artists, scientists, and mathematicians. It was thrilling to bring the 'Etruscan Venus Series' to life virtually as PHSColograms and visual metaphors at the Feature gallery in New York in the mid-1980s. I continued working with Donna to create PHSColograms and sculptures from her stunning award-winning documentary films. Recently we recorded and co-edited 22 trailblazing women featured in our Herstory book, New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts, published by UIPress. Donna’s heroic efforts to bring artists and scientists together is an exemplar for present and future generations. We need more inventive thinkers, dynamic co-creators, and artists as producers. We need more hopes and dreams to consciously evolve our world creatively, inclusively and with compassion. We need more Donna Cox's.”

— Ellen Sandor, Founding Artist and Director, (art)n

Dan Reed Portrait

“When I think of Donna Cox, I immediately think of Renaissance teams – she has been the embodiment of this idea throughout her amazing career, building partnerships across the arts, science, and technology – inspiring students, researchers, scholars, and the public alike. My many conversations with Donna have always had two constants – inspiration about the future and awe for what could be. Inspired by the power of her example, I created the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) based on her ideas. I fondly remember sitting with her and Bob Patterson on the floor of the Hayden Planetarium in New York as they finalized the installation of a collaborative visualization, laughing and talking with her and Neil deGrasse Tyson about the importance of public science outreach. I consider myself privileged to call Donna a friend and a witness to her soaring and phenomenal career. Thank you, Donna, for making all of us better with your scholarship, visualizations, ideas, and passion.”

— Daniel Reed, Former NCSA Director, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Computer Engineering, University of Utah

Maxine Brown GIF

“Donna follows the science. To me, Donna and her tremendously talented team of programmers and artists are filmmakers extraordinaire who use their creativity, artistic knowledge and programming skills to create photo-realistic animations and images that transform complex scientific data into information, easily understood by the general public. I met Donna in the mid-80s at a regional computer graphics conference in Eugene, Oregon, before either of us worked for the University of Illinois — her in Urbana-Champaign and me in Chicago — and we remain friends and colleagues, having supported and collaborated over the years. I recently worked with Donna and Robert Patterson, her partner in work and life who is also retiring, to produce a highly respected and well-received 3D world map of global Research & Education Networks. Donna, Bob, and their team have created an enduring legacy of scientific visualizations, bar none.”

— Maxine Brown, former (retired) director and current Visiting Senior Research Scientist at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois Chicago

Ed Seidel GIF

"I actually cannot imagine NCSA without Donna. She has been a major part of NCSA's heart and soul, for more than three decades, and an inspiration to me and to many, many people around the world throughout. I know how much NCSA and the university will miss Donna and Bob both, but I know they, and their work, will continue to inspire for years to come."

— Ed Seidel, Former NCSA Director, President, University of Wyoming

Amy Schuele Portrait

“What can I say about Donna Cox that hasn’t already been said? She has been the heart and soul of NCSA for decades, with her hair shining as brightly as her personality with her technical leadership paving the way for so many of NCSA's successes. I am sincerely grateful to Donna for her unwavering support of NCSA staff, especially those that might not have traditionally been represented. I was watching and learning from her - how to be myself in this crazy tech world, how to advocate for others, how to stand firm when necessary, when to give in. Donna, thank you for all you have done, for letting me watch and learn, even when you didn’t know I was watching. Thank you for providing the opportunity to me by just being your wonderful self. I wish you the best in your retirement!”

— Amy Schuele, NCSA Associate Director, Integrated Cyberinfrastructure

Thom Dunning Portrait

“The work of Donna Cox and her group has played a key role in advancing our understanding of a broad range of physical phenomena. It is one thing to have the numbers, but an entirely different thing to have those numbers visualized. Visualization is critical to understanding the essence of a phenomenon, which can then be used to understand the numbers. Donna and her group of specialists represent par excellence in bringing the latest visualization techniques and technologies to aid the advancement of science. Their visualizations have also sparked the interest of both teachers and students in science, helping students understand that science is not boring but, in fact, a quest for understanding the world around us — an exciting undertaking.”

— Thom H. Dunning Jr., Former NCSA Director, Research Professor of Chemistry, University of Washington

Joan Truckenbrod Portrait

“Donna Cox inspires all of us. Her innovations in visualization continue to expand research, science and communication in a variety of disciplines. With her unique perspective, she envisioned the potential of using the computer and computer graphics to create a visual language for the analysis and communication of data and scientific processes. Her work illustrated how computer-aided visualization expanded the understanding of complex data sets and their analysis in real-time. She has innovated methods and techniques for communicating invisible phenomena throughout her significant career, to a broad audience from the scientific community, to artists and animators. Her contribution underlies the evolution and future developments in the field of scientific and artistic visualization.”

— Joan Truckenbrod, Professor Emeritus of Art and Technology, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Chancellor Robert Jones

“Donna Cox has been a pioneer at the intersection of art, information, computing and the entire human experience. In a world where most saw combinations of zeroes and ones as bewildering mechanisms for faster calculations, she was among the first to see them as the foundation for a future that put transformational power of ideas, data and information directly in the hands of every one of us.”

— Chancellor Robert Jones, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

About NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation's science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students and collaborators from around the globe use these resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing many of the world's industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.