Inaugural Ebert Symposium Takes a Galactic Look at Empathy

University professors and guest experts explore storytelling and data visualization, screen IMAX film

By Molly Leahy, Communications and Marketing Intern


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There’s something unique about the first-ever Roger Ebert Symposium: not only is it showcasing world-class speakers and providing a viewing of the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet, but it is uniting experts and students from across the campus and the nation over one simple idea: empathy.

The inaugural event, “Empathy for the Universe: Storytelling and Data Visualization” is co-sponsored by the College of Media, the Advanced Visualization Lab at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and the Ebert Center. The symposium is being held at the NCSA Auditorium and will feature three panels as well as a free viewing of A Beautiful Planet at the Savoy 16 theater in the evening. In addition, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow and co-founder of Ebertfest, will kick off the event with the overall welcome and host a Q&A after the film screening at Savoy 16 theater.

Donna J. Cox, an Illinois professor of art and design, director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory, and one of the event’s organizers, says that the theme of empathy is weaved in throughout the entire day. “We go from generating empathy in the morning panel for our planet, to empathy on the second panel for social systems, to the third panel: empathy for individuals through the interconnectedness of arts and humanities,” Cox said.

Connecting Science and Art

In honor of the late Roger Ebert, a University of Illinois journalism alum, the Ebert Symposium combines science and art through exploring interactive storytelling and data visualization. There’s something for everyone—cinema, scientific and environmental data visualization, media, and journalism.

Through the influx of data and the evolution of media, journalism and data visualization have become more connected over the past two decades. This crucial connection will be discussed at the event, especially when it comes to exploring important issues like climate change, diversity, and inclusion.

“Data visualization is crucial to telling an investigative story,” said Brant Houston, a professor in journalism who specializes in investigative reporting and is speaking on the "Interconnectedness in Arts and Sciences" panel. “Whether it's disclosing the links between individuals and institutions in social network analysis, unfolding a series of events in a corruption probe through timelines, mapping the correlation between poor building codes and hurricane damage or the impact of climate change, or illustrating the flow of currency in money-laundering schemes.”

Becoming Empathizers of the Universe

There are many vehicles to driving empathy, and Roger Ebert believed cinema to be one of them. Beyond just the showing of A Beautiful Planet, both the director of the film, Toni Myers, and the film’s cinematographer and a former astronaut, Terry Virts, will be presenting at the symposium. Their panel, “Science on the Screen” will discuss some of the amazing footage in the movie and how they represented our universe on screen.

Through cinematic visuals and science communication, the panels will discuss how we can bring together these different fields of experts and create more empathy for our world.

“Universities are places that work to cultivate the next generation of empathizers for the universe,” said Anita Chan, associate professor of media and cinema studies. “It’s not every university that get to host an international film festival of the caliber of Ebertfest, but the University of Illinois is the kind of place that draws in and amplifies this kind of talent - and produces rich and meaningful new convergences between STEM fields, arts and humanities, and social sciences.”

The symposium panels and the film screening are free to attend. A full schedule of the day as well as a link to register to attend can be found here.

Photo: Former astronaut Terry Virts will be a featured guest for the first Roger Ebert Symposium on Monday, Oct. 1, talking about his role in shooting the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet, which will be screened free of charge as the capstone to the event. (Photo courtesy of Terry Virts.)