Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award

Launched in 2016, the Doctoral Dissertation Award is awarded annually to recognize a recent doctoral candidate who has successfully defended and completed his or her Ph.D. dissertation in computer graphics and interactive techniques. Recognizing young researchers who have already made a notable contribution very early during their doctoral study, the award is presented each year at the SIGGRAPH Conference and is accompanied by a plaque, complimentary full conference registration and travel to the award ceremony. Honorable Mentions may also be awarded.

Current Recipient

Cheng Zhang

For a dissertation presenting significant advances in physics-based rendering and providing both practical tools and theoretical foundations for future differentiable rendering algorithms.

ACM SIGGRAPH is pleased to announce Cheng Zhang as the 2023 recipient of the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. In his dissertation, Zhang presents significant advances in physics-based rendering that provide both practical tools and solid theoretical foundations for the development of future differentiable rendering algorithms. 

Differentiable rendering addresses the problem of differentiating complex light-transport effects (including soft shadows, interreflection, or subsurface scattering) of a computer-generated image with respect to all the parameters describing the scene being rendered – such as the shape of an object, the color of a surface, or the optical density of the surrounding medium. A core issue in differentiable rendering is the handling of discontinuities due to object boundaries and occlusion: the differentiation of these discontinuities leads to Dirac delta distributions inside the rendering equation integral, whose integration via Monte Carlo sampling is notoriously difficult and computationally expensive. 

Zhang proposes an ingenious approach to significantly improve the efficiency of discontinuity handling.  Starting from the path space formulation of rendering (rather than the one based on integration over solid angle), Zhang’s observation that the typical integrand required to evaluate light transport contains moving discontinuities and that its domain of integration in this formulation is parameter dependent. By importing the Reynolds transport theorem (a staple of continuum mechanics) to rendering, he is able to introduce a change of variables from the parameter-dependent path space to a parameter-independent material space, as well as an integration over discontinuity surfaces in their material path space to account for parameter-dependent discontinuities. This rigorous formulation of differential light transport in path space leads quite elegantly to Monte Carlo methods that estimate the resulting boundary and interior integrals for global illumination. 

In addition to his accomplishments in devising the theoretically important differential radiative transfer and path integral formulations, he also makes other significant practical contributions in his dissertation. For instance, Zhang noticed that derivatives in differentiable rendering are often odd functions. He exploits this property to produce negative correlation between samples for variance reduction, which greatly improves the efficiency of Monte-Carlo-based differentiable rendering. 

Zhang’s dissertation establishes both sound mathematical foundations and practical algorithms that significantly improve the efficiency of Monte-Carlo-based differentiable rendering. Both for the high quality of his contributions to the field and the exciting developments they are bound to generate in future years, the SIGGRAPH community recognizes Cheng Zhang with the 2023 ACM SIGGRAPH Doctoral Dissertation Award

The committee also decided to award an honorable mention to Dr. Georg Sperl for his outstanding work on the numerical homogenization and simulation of yarn-level cloth.

Previous Recipients

  • 2022 Xue Bin Peng
  • 2021 Minchen Li
  • 2020 Tzu-Mao Li
  • 2019 Lingqi Yan
  • 2018 Jun-Yan Zhu
  • 2017 Felix Heide
  • 2016 Eduardo Simões Lopes Gastal

Honorable Mentions

  • 2023 Georg Sperl
  • 2022 Yuanming Hu, MIT
  • 2021 David B. Lindell
  • 2020 Yun Raymond Fei
  • 2020 Mina Konakovic Lukovic
  • 2019 Angela Dai
  • 2019 Hao Su
  • 2019 Adriana Schulz
  • 2017 Myers Abraham (Abe) Davis
  • 2017 Matthew O’Toole
  • 2016 Sofien Bouaziz

Nomination Procedure

All doctoral dissertations successfully defended (or thesis accepted) during the calendar year prior to the nomination deadline are eligible for consideration. There is no limit on the number of nominations that can be made from any single institution or advisor. The key criteria used to evaluate the nominations include technical depth, significance of the research contribution, potential impact on theory and practice, and quality of presentation.

The submitted dissertation should be a finalized version. Nominations are welcomed from any country, but only English language versions will be accepted. Nominations are evaluated by the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award Committee. Nominations, including all supporting materials and endorsement letters, are due by January 31 of each year. Click the button below to submit a nomination.


  • Name, address, phone number, and email address of the nominator
  • Name, address, and email address of the candidate
  • Suggested citation (maximum of 25 words)
  • Nomination statement (maximum of 500 words in length) addressing why the candidate should receive this award
  • Copy of the dissertation in pdf format
  • The nominee’s vitae
  • Endorsement letters: at most three supporting letters could be included from experts in the field