Cancer Detectives

Superpowered by Laser Microscopes

Have you ever wondered how cancer cells are detected?

First, meet Kat to learn why this work matters in real-lives today, and then join the Cancer Detectives as they sleuth out patterns in cancer cell growth, with a goal to improve lives through science. Grab your science notebook to take notes as you go, and then share your discoveries with others!

Learn Why Research Matters

Kat’s dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was in middle school. Kat shares how she navigated this crisis in her early teenage years and shares her path to advocacy: spreading awareness, supporting research, and preparing to make a difference through her own studies.

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Questions to Consider:


Kat saw a problem in the world and took clear steps to make a difference. What problems do you see that you think could be solved by science? What steps could you take to start getting involved?


Kat wanted to learn as much as she could about cancer. What do you already know about cells and about cancer? What do you want to know about cancer?

“Nothing feels better than to actually make a difference in the thing that’s so problematic for you.”

— Kat Zahed

Meet The Scientists

Read about the scientists, then flip over the cards to learn more (and discover their secret superpower!) Who do you relate to the most?

There are 4 cards to read.

Melissa Skala
Melissa Skala
Principal Investigator

I am a professor at UW-Madison in Biomedical Engineering. I mentor people in my lab to become independent researchers, set the direction of our research, and communicate our results to the scientific community. 🔬

Amani Gillette
Amani Gillette
Graduate Researcher

I take images with our microscope and run data analysis on them. I’m always trying to answer this question: how do changes to mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) impact our microscopes measurements of cells? 🦠

Tiffany Heaster
Tiffany Heaster
Graduate Researcher

I take images of different types of cells found in tumors and create computer programs to understand how each cell type behaves in the tumor. 🖥️

Tongcheng Qian
Tongcheng Qian
Assistant Scientist

I am a stem cell engineer. I generate human tissues with stem cells in the hope of repairing damaged organs. 🧬

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What’s your superpower?

Use this fillable PDF template to create your own scientist trading card.


Learn About the Lab

Ever wonder what scientists do every day, or what kind of equipment they use in their lab? Join middle schoolers from Medford, Wisconsin and researchers from the Skala Lab to learn more about what research really looks like!

View Transcript

Questions to Consider:


Tiffany talks about how her lab takes images and videos of cells to study how they change over time. What things can you think of that change over time that you could document in order to study?


Dan and Amani talk about the importance of looking for patterns in their scientific research. Can you think of places in your life where patterns are really important?

“One of the biggest takeaways I’ve learned from being in science is that we actually don’t know that much. So… start trying stuff out! You could be the person to discover [something].”

— Amani Gillette

Do Science!

Scientist in white lab coat
Icon illustration that suggests elements connected to a hub

Science Practices Activity

Lab researcher Amani has taken images with her microscope to find treatments for cancer. Can you help her identify how cancer cells look different from healthy ones?

Project Credits

Ian Glodich
Jessie Nixon

Ryan Hendricks
Ian Glodich

Ian Glodich

Beauxregard Neylon
Curtis Sorensen

Norman Yuson Cuaño
John Vieth
Tim Schneider

Brian Lorbiecki
Amanda Roslansky
Scott Stetson
Amber Samdahl

Science Education Consultant
Travis Tangen, WID
Kevin Anderson, PhD, DPI

Educator Guide and Activities
Mia Forslund
Travis Tangen
Jen Kobylecky
Christina Swords
Sara Krauskopf
Millie Rolander
Anika Gupta
Kaitlin Edwards
Amani Gillette, PhD

Thanks to our scientists
Melissa Skala, PhD
Amani Gillette
Tiffany Heaster, PhD
Tongcheng Qian, PhD
Daniel Gil

Project Partner
Morgridge Institute for Research
Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation
Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Optical Microscopy in Medicine Lab

Executive Producer
Megan Monday

Director of Education
Alyssa Tsagong

Director of Television
Jon Miskowski

Educator Advisors

Sarah Adumat
Oshkosh Area School District, Oshkosh, WI

Linda Dworschack
North Crawford High School, Soldiers Grove, WI

Jeanine Gelhaus
Medford Area Middle School, Medford, WI

Deborah Hilscher
Traeger Middle School, Oshkosh, WI

Funding Provided By

Timothy William Trout Education Fund
a gift of Monroe and Sandra Trout

Focus Fund for Education

Friends of PBS Wisconsin