Students develop an app to detect early skin cancer

Selina Matolak

Imagine detecting cancerous skin cells with the click of a button. Well, there’s an app for that! Or, at least, one in development.

Driven by a desire to make an impact through her research, Selina Matolak, an Integrated Science and Technology major, embarked on a journey leveraging technology to assist underserved communities lacking access to affordable healthcare. Inspired by the prevalence of melanoma skin cancer and its impact on her community, Matolak decided to focus her efforts on developing a solution.

Initially conceptualized for her ISAT capstone project, Matolak aimed to devise a tool capable of detecting cancerous skin cells early on — when treatment options are most effective.

After sharing her vision with ISAT professor Chris Bachman, he was impressed and eager to support her. Bachmann explains that skin cancer has the potential to affect everyone. Early detection is critical for a complete cure, whereas delayed diagnosis can lead to more aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. “If I could simply take a picture with my phone, in the privacy of my own home, and have an app determine if I’m at risk and should see a doctor, then I would,” he says.

Matolak’s goal was to train an algorithm using images of skin cancer diagnosed by medical professionals. The app would serve as a pre-screening for cancer, offering valuable insights and recommendations. But she faced a challenge. Matolak needed a computer scientist to help with the app’s coding, so she sought the expertise of Amber Oliver, a Computer Science major.

“At first, it was just an idea for a physical prototype,” Oliver said. “It captures images of skin lesions and then gives a percentage or response indicating whether it is melanoma skin cancer or not. It’s not a diagnosis since it relies on machine learning and artificial intelligence — which can be incorrect. It's just a recommendation to seek help.”

Their interdisciplinary teamwork brought the project to life, fueling their passion as they worked tirelessly to refine the app. Mataolak and Oliver’s vision extended beyond mere functionality; they aimed to make the app accessible to those in need, envisioning it as a resource for communities lacking in healthcare.

“We want to eventually donate this to the local community, homeless shelters, or refugee camps to bridge the technology gap and deploy it globally,” Matolak said. “If the app can scan for melanoma, what else can it detect?”

Matolak and Oliver’s dedication and ambition caught the attention of faculty members and collaborators, leading to their invitation to participate in the Fallon Challenge, an idea pitch competition organized by the Gilliam Center for Entrepreneurship in JMU’s College of Business. “Students pitch their entrepreneurial ideas to a panel of professional judges in a shark-tank-style competition. The first prize is a $1000 scholarship for a team member. There’s also an Audience Choice Award of $500. It’s a great way for students to explore their ideas and get feedback from industry experts,” Bachmann explained.

Amber Oliver and Selina Matolak

“We were the only students from the College of Integrated Science and Engineering invited to the challenge,” Matolak said. “Everyone else was a Business major.”

At the competition, Matolak and Oliver presented their idea and a layout of the app’s interface to aid the audience in their research beyond its scientific features and code. “We presented it from a user’s perspective to ensure our work was understood visually,” Matolak said.

Matolak and Oliver won first prize and the Audience Choice Award. “Knowing that people would genuinely benefit from our product was immensely rewarding,” Oliver said. “We did not expect to receive such great feedback or win the challenge.” Their success at the Fallon Challenge further solidified their belief in the app's potential, inspiring them to continue their journey and explore opportunities for further development.

“I think this project really shows the potential of our JMU students. They’ve got great ideas, and with a little help from the faculty, they can do amazing things,” Bachman said. “The Gilliam Center and the Fallon Challenge are all about supporting our students’ exploration of entrepreneurial ideas and providing the guidance needed to make their dreams a reality.”


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Published: Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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