Path to NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover mission includes Foundation scholarship

Darian Dixon is searching for life on Mars, and a Greater Milwaukee Foundation scholarship is part of the rocket fuel that helped propel his career to new heights.

This February, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on the Red Planet and sent its first pictures back to Earth as it began its mission seeking evidence of ancient life. Dixon leads the team that operates the high-powered cameras that make the search possible.

A 2015 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate who majored in geosciences, Dixon now works as a mission operations specialist at Malin Space Science Systems, a California company that also operates some of the cameras for NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. He said his experiences at UWM are what launched his interest in space exploration.

“I worked with a professor, Lindsay McHenry, who was also the undergraduate advisor for the department at the time. She studies Mars minerology,” Dixon said. “That was kind of my first big research project, and that was probably the most influential thing that got me on this path.”

In addition to his research experience, Dixon credits a scholarship with helping him achieve his goals at UWM. When he was a sophomore, he was surprised to learn that he had been awarded the Foundation’s Dr. John H. and Cynthia A. Jackson Scholarship.

“That was my first year taking STEM classes, and that scholarship was a huge help in me getting those pricey books. That was a hard year for me financially, so I know that without the John and Cynthia Jackson Scholarship, affording books would have been a lot tougher.”

John Jackson graduated from the Wisconsin State Teacher’s College, a predecessor institution to UWM, nearly 70 years before Dixon, and Cynthia Jackson graduated from UWM three decades before Dixon. John, who went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago, served as a board member of the UWM Alumni Association in the 1970s.

The Jacksons made provisions in their estate plan to create their scholarship with the intention of helping UWM undergraduate students. The scholarship was established at the Foundation in 2009 following John’s death, and since it was created, nearly $1 million has been distributed to more than 180 UWM students.

“I would say to someone considering starting a scholarship at UWM to absolutely do it,” Dixon said. “UWM is a thriving school with talented, eager students, and contributions to their education would go a long way in helping them achieve great success.”

Dixon has already followed his own advice. Just a few weeks after giving back to his alma mater by delivering the commencement address for UWM’s spring 2021 graduating class this May, he added “philanthropist” to his out-of-this-world accomplishments. He established the Gloria Dixon Dream and Believe Scholarship at UWM in honor of his mother, continuing the legacy of generosity that supported his own quest for knowledge.