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NCSA’s Donna J. Cox Honored With Rare IPS Technology Innovation Award

Visualization of a Supernova from the Advanced Visualization Lab at NCSA. Dust, gases, and stars are seen in gradients and dots of white, pink, purple, and yellow

Donna J. Cox, director of NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL), was recently awarded the International Planetarium Society’s 2020 Technology Innovation Award. This is just the eighth time since the society’s founding in 1958 that this honor has been bestowed. It is only awarded when a recipient is identified as meeting the award criteria: an individual with “a broad, deep and concrete effect in the profession and its development” and “whose technology and/or innovations in the planetarium field have been, through the years, utilized or replicated by other members and/or other planetariums.”

The International Planetarium Society is the largest association of planetarium professionals in the world, whose “goal is to share insights and creative work thus becoming better planetarians.” Its members come from 50 countries and represent schools, colleges and universities, museums, and public facilities of all sizes.

Cox, who is also the Michael Aiken Chair in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, director of Illinois’ eDream Institute at NCSA, head of NCSA’s Research and Education Directorate, and NCSA Chief Scholar, was recognized for her work leading the AVL team in creating breathtaking data visualizations for numerous documentaries and full dome planetarium shows, including Birth of Planet EarthSolar Superstorms, and an upcoming production, Atlas of a Changing Earth, to be released in 2021. Many of these productions were created under a grant from the National Science Foundation for the CADENS (Centrality of Advanced Digitally ENabled Science) project, which aims to increase digital literacy and inform the general public about computational and data-enabled scientific discovery. AVL also develops visualization software and display technologies.

At the forefront of the art of scientific visualization for more than 35 years, Cox was the first to organize an interdisciplinary methodology to address visualization challenges. Always in demand as a speaker at national and global conferences, she also serves on a variety of national panels and has served as Director-at-Large and Experimental Technologies Chair for the SIGGRAPH Conference.

I was very surprised and humbled to be notified of this award. IPS is a prestigious organization, and this is an award that IPS rarely gives out. But it’s really an honor for the entire AVL team—me, Robert Patterson, Stuart Levy, Kalina Borkiewicz, AJ Christensen, Jeff Carpenter; we work together to create the stunning visualizations featured in the planetarium shows and documentaries. I owe a great debt to the team that shares in this rare award.

Donna Cox, NCSA Advanced Visualization Director

The AVL team frequently collaborates with Spitz Creative Media. Robin Sip, director of show production and content for Evans & Sutherland, Spitz’s parent company, was also recognized with an IPS Technology Innovation Award for his innovative use of full dome film as a creative medium.


The Advanced Visualization Lab is a “Renaissance Team,” where each member of the AVL team plays a unique role and contributes a variety of skills to the process, development, and production at NCSA. Their expertise includes advanced graphics and visualization techniques, artistic design, cinematic choreography, multimedia and video production, and data management and render wrangling. AVL bridges the gap between science and the arts by creating high-resolution data-driven cinematic-quality visualizations for public outreach.


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.

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