September 18, 2023

Badger Challenge helps fund cancer innovation

Hundreds of people passing over the start line of a race

The heart of cancer research involves asking ambitious questions and pushing the limits of what is known and possible.

Pursing a novel research angle involves many hurdles, the biggest of which is how to pay for it. Competition for federal grants has become extremely heated over the years, and having promising initial study results helps strengthen those grant applications.

Recognizing the importance of seed funding for new ideas, two UW researchers founded The Ride in 2016. Dr. Deric Wheeler, professor in the Department of Human Oncology and Dr. Paul Harari, chair of the Department of Human Oncology, envisioned a community cycling fundraiser that would not only spur innovative cancer research at UW but also bring together and honor community members who have been impacted by cancer.

“We have devoted tremendous energy into creating a high-quality event where cancer patients, family members, healthcare providers and community members feel inspired by the mission to increase cancer cure rates,” Harari said.

As the event has grown in popularity and scope, including adding walk and run routes, it has rebranded with a new name that reflects its innovative mission: Badger Challenge. This year’s event will be held on Sunday, Sept. 24, at the American Family Insurance headquarters. Event details and registration are available at

Since 2016, Badger Challenge has raised more than $2.6 million to fund a diverse range of promising cancer research arenas, including in the areas of genomics, imaging, precision medicine and viral oncology, among others. Awards are given through a competitive application process that emphasizes new cancer research discoveries, technologies and treatments that will bring beneficial impact to future cancer patients.

“Research funding has become more competitive than ever, and Badger Challenge has been able to provide the most promising areas of cancer research the necessary support to advance into the clinical space,” Wheeler said.

Since 2016, these funds have helped dozens of Badger Challenge Scholars across the UW campus explore innovative ideas.

Dr. Melissa Skala, professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics at UW, works in photonics-based technologies that can be used to personalize cancer patient treatments. Using different light technologies, like lasers and LEDs, her team studies how cells emit light and how that may influence their growth and division.

“The Badger Challenge Scholar Award supported an exciting new research direction in cancer immunology for my lab, which resulted in discoveries and technologies that we are currently developing for T cell therapy strategies to help cancer patients,” Skala said. “My lab is excited to try high-risk projects that have great potential to impact patients, and this award from the Badger Challenge helped us ignite one of these projects.”

Participants in the Badger Challenge appreciate the hyper-local impact of their efforts, as dollars raised will exclusively be available for UW scientists to accelerate the discovery of promising new treatments that directly benefit patients treated at the UW Carbone Cancer Center.

“The Badger Challenge is rapidly becoming the largest single-day cancer fundraiser in the State of Wisconsin,” Harari said. “People are inspired to honor their loved ones affected by cancer, and to create a better future for the cancer patients of tomorrow.”

These strong community ties and the fun, family atmosphere of the event helped drive the increasing popularity of Badger Challenge year after year. Wheeler and Harari said they anticipate having more than 5,000 people participate within the next few years.

Dr. Robert Golden, Dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health has participated as a rider or runner in multiple Badger Challenge events since 2016.

“You feel something very special in the air at the Badger Challenge,” Golden said. “This atmosphere brings out the very best in people to do whatever they can to reduce the burden of cancer for the future.”