Eleven-year-old Elias David Campos Gallardo has already earned a reputation as an overcomer—and can show you a message from Mars to prove it.

This homeschool student, who goes by David, was honored in February by a NASA program that recognizes individuals who achieve remarkable things despite severe challenges. As part of the award, David received a personalized message from NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is currently exploring Mars.

His mom, Carol, said the decision to homeschool David was easy because he proved to be a self-directed learner from a very early age.

“I never taught him how to read,” recalled Carol. “He just started reading by himself.”

She began homeschooling David when he was about 4 years old. “I realized he wanted to start studying,” she said.

Searching for Answers

Carol added that David loves to read, and often carries a book with him wherever he goes—even when the two of them go shopping together. But reading also caused David to complain of vision problems—seeing double and getting headaches.

“I didn’t understand,” Carol said. “I would tell him not to cross his eyes.”

When David’s symptoms persisted, Carol had him examined by several eye doctors.

Because of her husband Pedro’s work, the family moved a lot—from Missouri, to Mexico City, to Alabama, then to California, where they live now. These frequent relocations made it difficult for Carol to find physicians who could perform in-depth examinations of David’s eye problems.

In 2020 David was diagnosed with convergence insufficiency, which means his eyes struggle to align in order to see objects clearly. Instead, when he looks at things up close, they often appear to be doubled or slightly overlapping. In addition, his brain sometimes tries to compensate by diminishing or shutting down the vision in one eye.

As David explained, if someone were to throw a ball toward him in the direction of an eye that his brain was shutting down, he might not see the ball until it bounced off him.

Therapy Regimen

David now does eye exercises and may have to keep doing them for the rest of his life.

“It cannot be fixed with lenses or surgery,” Carol explained.

In one type of therapy, David looks through various handheld screens to help force his eyes to track in unison. He also scans strings of random words to locate certain letters—an exercise meant to train the ocular muscles.

David does eye exercises in order to strengthen his ocular muscles.

David Gallardo does eye exercises in order to strengthen his ocular muscles.

David’s eye difficulties haven’t stopped him from learning. He still reads plenty of books, but he’s also found online tools that translate text to speech.

“I can copy and paste, and the program will read it to me,” said David.

In addition to home studies and online classes, David also participates in math clubs for middle school students run by the University of California Irvine and Stanford University. The clubs delve into topics such as calculating the area of polygons, modular arithmetic, and game theory.

“I have a really fun time,” David said.

Desire to Help

He has also been inspired to learn by witnessing the struggles of people close to him.

In 2021 he won first place for a science project he submitted through a club run by the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He was inspired by recalling how his grandmother suffered from skin ailments during her battle with cancer. So, David extracted the essential oil of cherry blossoms and blended it with unscented coconut oil and glycerin to create a topical balm.

David works on his award-winning science project.

David Gallardo works on his award-winning science project.

Carol said the science fair judges were especially impressed with the intent of David’s experiment.

“What they liked from his project was the application he was pursuing—that it could be used for inflammation caused by medications and treatments in patients with cancer,” she said.

David was also forced to grow in self-sufficiency while severe back pain all but immobilized his mother for a few months beginning in December 2021.

During this time, instead of studying at his desk, David set up a work station in his mother’s room.

“I would study next to her to be with her,” he said.

He also learned to manage his classes with less input from his mother.

Mars Calling

Carol has since recovered to the point that, with the help of medication, she is much more mobile. And David has forged ahead in his schooling. He is now about a year ahead of most students his age.

David’s academic progress inspired two of his online instructors to nominate him for the NASA award.

As an honoree, he was invited to participate in a February 14 online meeting with scientists and crew who are working on the Perseverance rover program. He was able to ask questions, and was greeted with a text message from the rover—which is now more than 90 million miles away.

The message read: “Obstacles won’t defeat you, Elias. You’ve shown you will persevere!”

“It was really weird that I was getting a message from outer space,” David said. “It was really cool. It was a great Valentine’s Day.”