Jason Jones was driving up County Road 81 on his way to enroll at North Hennepin Community College, the beginning of what he hoped would be a career in the sciences. It was his platoon sergeant from the Minnesota Army National Guard on the phone: Jones was going to Baghdad.

It wasn’t the first time his dreams were interrupted, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Jones, 34, raised himself from age 15, when his parents divorced. “It was rough, it was tough, it was raw,” said Jones. “I always wanted to get an advanced degree, and there was no one there to say that it was attainable.”

In his early 20s, Jones did two tours of Iraq with the Guard, and it changed him.

“I matured and gained perspective,” he said. “I saw things through a different lens. ... I developed mentally and became more resilient. I think most of all I have a sense of gratitude of what we have.”

That gratitude was evident this week as Jones showed me around the laboratory where he works at the University of Minnesota. He was almost giddy as he toured the lab, which looks like something out of a futuristic movie. Giant nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, which are used to study the interaction between atoms, are now part of Jones’ tool belt.

“It’s awesome to come here every day,” Jones said. “It’s millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, and they trust me with it.”

After Jones returned to the U.S. from Iraq, he finally enrolled at North Hennepin Community College in 2007 with the hope of eventually transferring to the U. During his first semester, his son, Jason Jones Jr., was born. When the mother chose not to be part of the boy’s life, Jones added to his challenges by becoming a single father.

In 2011, following a second deployment to Iraq, Jones was accepted into the U. In 2013, Prof. Georgiana May was looking for an eager science student to do research, and she chose Jones.

“He just took off with it,” said May. “What impressed me from the beginning is that he’s so keen on learning. He’s very intensely interested in his education.”

When he’s in the lab, “he’s like a kid in a candy store,” said May. “He’s got a maturity. To come back from where he’s been, after two tours of Iraq — I think it’s good for all of us to see. Everybody has difficulties to overcome, but if he can do it, anybody can.”

Jones graduated with a bachelor of science degree and was accepted into the graduate program in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics as a McNair Scholar, and is now on his way to earning a Ph.D. — 10 years after he first returned from the war. Last week, it was announced that the U’s TRIO McNair Scholars program has been funded for another five years.

The federally funded program seeks to increase the number of doctoral graduates among underrepresented and first-generation college students. Jones is the first child in his family to go to college, and he said the program has been instrumental in helping him through the unforeseen challenges of school and getting an advanced degree, especially since he had no one else to turn to.

The program is designed to close the educational gap in advanced degrees among low-income and underrepresented populations, a situation that is “abysmal,” said Anthony Albecker, the program’s director.

“Jason was kind of tentative when he first came to us,” said Albecker. “He asked a lot of questions and fully took advantage of the program. The process of getting an advanced degree is intimidating, and a lot of students who have overcome a lot of challenges have kind of an impostor syndrome — they start to feel like they don’t deserve it.”

Jones admits feeling that insecurity at first, but he slowly began to feel that he fit in. He hopes to some day run his own laboratory in an educational setting where he can oversee a group of scientists doing research that will matter.

“I didn’t know anybody who had gone to graduate school — there was a lot of fear wrapped up in it — so the scholarship was important,” Jones said.

“I care about the planet, I care about human beings and I want to be useful. It was just a pipe dream, so I’m very proud to be where I am now. I want to mentor the next generation, because I think I have a viewpoint that is unique, particularly in academia.”

Jones already has his first mentee: his 9-year-old son. Jones has brought the boy to classes, to the lab and to seminars, and has been encouraged to do so by the McNair program.

In fact, says Albecker, that’s the point of the program: to show successive generations that they can aspire to anything.