Cristina Thomas was raised in Chino, California, where sometimes after dinner she and her father would spend time in the backyard, gazing through a telescope at the night sky.

As Cristina peered through the lens at the moon and stars, she often was filled with a sense of wonder and magic. “Things seemed so far away,” she says.

“I wanted knowledge about the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. I had a sudden realization that there are so many unanswered questions, and it will take so many people to figure it out. I wanted to be one of them.”

Now the 25-year-old graduate student studies the origin of asteroids and meteorites. At MIT, she is now a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. Earlier, in 2004, she earned a bachelor’s degree in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology.

As an undergraduate, Thomas worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Later, she participated in the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in Houston, Texas, where she was a team leader. In 2005, she earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Now, at MIT, she is a member of the Association of Student Activities, the Musical Theatre Guild, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. She plans to become a professor, work at a research institution, like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or work directly on spacecraft missions.

“The Presidential Fellowship opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “It has been a wonderful experience and took a big load off my mind.

“One thing that worried me about moving to Boston was that it was so expensive. But when I got the fellowship, I didn’t have to worry. I had a little extra money, so I wouldn’t freak out about how much I paid for milk, which I’ve seen happen to some of my friends.

“It made it easier for me to accept the invitation to come to MIT,” she says. “I didn’t have to work 30 hours a week to survive. The funding was a dream.”

Thomas says that receiving this gift makes her feel more generous and expansive to others. In addition to regularly donating her blood to the Red Cross, she is also active in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

“Now I talk to undergrads and make presentations to the membership. I tell them what it’s like to be a grad student and what to expect. My parents didn’t go to college. No one was there to assist me. I really want to help guide the people who come behind me.”