Alumni make their mark from Hollywood to Mars

UWM has helped shape the lives of thousands of graduates from the CEO of Microsoft — Satya Nadella — to the first prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir. In previous stories, we’ve listed many of those alumni whose accomplishments have received widespread recognition.

Here are a few more UWM alumni who are improving the world, providing entertainment and helping guide major businesses.

Kirill Mikhanovsky, filmmaker

Filmmaker Kirill Mikhanovsky is co-writer and director of the critically acclaimed film “Give Me Liberty.” At UWM, he triple-majored in Russian, linguistics and film. The 2019 drama-comedy, set in Milwaukee, follows 24 hours in the hectic life of a medical transport driver.

“Give Me Liberty” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received a glowing review from a New York Times film critic who described the film as “delightfully unpredictable.” At Cannes, the world’s premier film festival, the film received a lengthy standing ovation. The film was nominated in three categories at the 2020 Spirit Awards, the independent world’s Oscars. It won The Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, presented to the creative team of a film budgeted at less than $500,000.

At UWM, Mikhanovsky majored in Russian, linguistics and film.

Darian Dixon, mission operations specialist

Darian Dixon takes pictures of Mars for a living. The 2015 UWM graduate is a lead for one aspect of the two high-powered Mastcam-Z cameras, part of an array of two dozen on NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021.

Dixon, who has a bachelor’s degree in geosciences, teams up with colleagues to construct and send the complicated computer commands for taking the photos. “It is still the basics of traditional photography, just done on a different planet in a really remote way.”

Recently, he was part of the team that brought back video of the first flight of the Ingenuity helicopter. “My job was navigating a complex data downlink situation and making absolutely sure that we received the Mastcam-Z footage of the helicopter flying as soon as possible,” he said.

He’s active in encouraging young people of color to go into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. More jobs are opening up, he said, but beyond the appeal of that, the work is also really interesting.

“We’re exploring the final frontier. It’s something that fills our hearts with awe and wonder,” Dixon said. “I don’t think you can put a price on that. You just get to look up and be happy that you are part of something that is much bigger than humanity.”

Dixon was UWM commencement speaker in May 2021.

Vuk Latinovich, soccer player

Vuk Latinovich, who played on UWM’s soccer team for four years, was selected in the third round of the January 2021 Major League Soccer SuperDraft by New York City FC. In April, the team signed him to a contract through 2021, with option years through 2024.

Latinovich graduated from UWM in December 2020 with a degree in history.

At UWM, he excelled both on the field and in the classroom. A midfielder, he was a two-time All-Horizon League honoree who earned first-team all-league and second team United Soccer Coaches All-North Region accolades. He was captain of the UWM team for two years, and was a member of the Horizon League All-Academic Team, regularly making the league’s Academic Honor Roll.

Vukovich has always wanted to play professionally. “There are no guarantees, but I feel confident about everything.”

Jonathan Adashek, IBM executive

Jonathan Adashek, who graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s in political science, is chief communications officer for IBM, overseeing a team of more than 500 people operating in 170 countries around the world. In his job, he manages all aspects of the company’s communications – internal, issues and crisis management, strategic events, social media and corporate positioning. He also leads IBM’s community outreach efforts through the company’s Corporate Citizenship program.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges to IBM as it did to corporations all over the world. In addition to finding ways to make sure 350,000 employees had the tools and resources to keep working safely, the company had to continue supporting clients’ technology infrastructure. That included many vital operations like hospitals.

Although Adashek earned his degree in political science, he had a long-term goal of heading communications for a multinational corporation. Before joining IBM in 2020, he helped lead communications at Renault Nissan Mitsubishi in Paris and Nissan in Toyko as well as working in government and politics.

 He credits UWM with giving him a strong base for his career.

 “I had some great professors and some great classes that really helped me with my thinking about issues. They challenged me. I was able to take some of that learning and apply it to some of the strategic thinking that I use in my work every day.”

Daulton Varsho, baseball player

Daulton Varsho is the first UWM baseball player to play in the major leagues.

After playing for the Panthers for three years, Varsho was selected in 2017 by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Competitive Balance B round of the major league draft (the 68th pick). In 2019, he was named the Diamondbacks Minor League Player of the Year and also earned Baseball America Minor League and Double-A All-Star accolades.

He made his major-league debut on July 30, 2020, during a season disrupted by the pandemic.

Varsho played in 37 games for the D-Backs in 2020, starting 13 in center field and six at catcher. He also got five starts in left field and five as the designated hitter. He hit .188 in 101 at-bats, scored 16 runs and had three homers, five doubles, two triples and nine RBI.

“It was a wild year,” he said in an interview early in 2021. “It was fun, though. I learned so much this year, just being able to take that all in in such a short span of time.”

Varsho began the 2021 season in the minors but was recalled to the big-league team a month later. After another short stint in Triple-A, he rejoined the Diamondbacks in June and has been on the roster since then. He’s appeared in more than 70 games this year, splitting his time between catcher and outfielder.

Analysts say his prospects look good.

“One of the most athletic catching prospects in the game, Varsho has an exciting blend of offensive and defensive tools which should serve him well whether he sticks behind the plate or moves to the outfield,” Baseball America said.

John Kissinger, engineer

John Kissinger is the president and CEO of GRAEF, a multidisciplinary architectural engineering, planning and design firm that works with clients throughout the United States. He has worked on and managed such major projects as the Lambeau Field renovation in Green Bay, the Wisconsin Center, the McCormick Place West addition in Chicago and the Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

UWM was a natural choice for Kissinger, a 1979 graduate of the College of Engineering & Applied Science. His mother was librarian at the university and the seven of the children in the Kissinger family went to UWM.

The Calatrava addition to the museum remains his favorite project.

“Working with Calatrava, creating a masterpiece in Milwaukee, was a highlight of my career, he said.  “It was a challenging project, but we got it done and it turned out great,” he said. “It’s a work of art.”

The Calatrava addition, which was Time Magazine’s No. 1 Design of 2001, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021. Kissinger said he gets a kick out of being one of only 20 or so people who know how the iconic Burke Brise Soleil –the soaring wings that open or close over the museum – works.

Sarah Parker, researcher

Sarah Parker is a researcher at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, studying the underlying causes and potential treatments of diseases of the large blood vessels.

She and her team are looking at the the molecular “signatures” of diseases like atherosclerosis (a buildup of plaque on artery walls) and aneurysms. Atherosclerosis contributes to coronary artery disease, a major cause of death in the country, and aortic aneurysms weaken the arteries and predispose them to rupturing.

“We need to diagnose them earlier because they are ‘indolent diseases’ – you don’t know you have them typically until there’s they’ve become symptomatic, which is usually pretty bad,” she said.

Parker came to UWM because she was a speedskater and Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center was a top training facility. She started out studying sports psychology and sports medicine, and had the opportunity to work in labs in the College of Health Sciences and Department of Psychology. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UWM.

She went on to the Medical College of Wisconsin for her doctorate, focusing on using high-tech tools called mass spectrometers to get what she calls “a systems level” view of biology at the molecular level.

After doing a post-doctorate at Johns Hopkins, she joined Cedars Sinai in 2018. She has received a prestigious Pathway to Independence grant from the National Institutes of Health to help support her work. This grant helps support outstanding postdoctoral researchers to move into independent tenure track or equivalent positions.

She credits her many mentors throughout her academic career with her success, including Professor Barbara Meyer and Distinguished Professor Fred Helmstetter at UWM.

“What you get at a school like UWM is really strong researchers who also have the time and energy and passion to put into mentorship.”

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