MS Information student Rahil Virani contributes to UW-Madison Alzheimer’s research

Rahil Virani, a student in the iSchool’s MS Information Program (photo credit: Virani)

Data skills can open unexpected doors. Rahil Virani MSx’25 knows this firsthand.

Before coming to Madison, Virani was a software developer tackling coding projects while living in Mumbai, India, a city of 20 million residents. In his role as a software developer for ITdeation Technologies, he began to develop a keen interest in data and its central role in computing, while at the same time growing weary of what he called “the big city vibe.”

When Virani began to search for graduate programs in data analytics, he considered quality, affordability, and location, and UW-Madison stood out to him on all three criteria. “UW-Madison was highly ranked and affordable, and I had heard that it’s also a beautiful and peaceful place to live,” Virani said. After considering various programs to further his data-centric education, the MS Information—with its Data Analytics concentration—seemed to Virani like “a perfect fit.”

During his fall 2023 semester, Virani secured a role as a Research Data Coordinator with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) at the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH). He now applies his data-savviness to impactful research that aims to combat a disease currently afflicting nearly 7 million Americans over age 65, including more than 120,000 Wisconsinites.

Through the MS program, Virani is not only expanding his data analysis skillset; he is getting hands-on experience with ADRC, managing the databases underlying one of the largest medical research collaborations in the United States.

Securing the role

At the beginning of the fall semester, Virani told Brendan Casey, iSchool director of experiential learning, about his interest in gaining hands-on experience while completing his coursework. Casey connected with Michael Collins, the Senior Director of Research Computing at SMPH, who had expressed interest in hiring iSchool students to help manage the ADRC databases.

When he first applied for the role with ADRC, Virani thought his chances of getting the job were slim to none. “But then I was called up for an interview,” he said. The fact that he was concurrently in the MS program, in addition to his prior experience in data management and web development, impressed the ADRC team.

“They wanted someone who understands data, who can identify errors or gaps in the data,” Virani said. “I felt like after two interviews, it just clicked.”  Additionally, Virani’s software engineering experience was a plus, as many of the data management tasks at ADRC require proficiency with coding languages like Python and R.

Virani also noted that a class he took in fall 2023, LIS 875: Information Processing and Retrieval, was instrumental in helping him gain a deeper understanding of what he called “strategic programming”, an approach he defined as “the application of programming skills in a thoughtful and purposeful manner, including considerations of data analytics, design, and the user experience.” Lessons from the course, taught by iSchool Associate Professor Rick Wash, have served Virani well in his current role at ADRC.

A ‘privilege’ to work with the data

The Wisconsin ADRC, founded in 2009, is one of about 40 federally funded Alzheimer’s research centers around the country, all working toward a common goal of effective prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s by 2025. Currently, there is no cure and few effective treatments for Alzheimer’s, and recent attempts to develop drugs that effectively slow cognitive decline have faltered. The Wisconsin ADRC recently received a $150 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lead a nationwide research effort investigating the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

At the ADRC, Virani works with data from a cohort of more than 17,000 people, the largest group of research participants in the country. This involves working with two primary databases, Virani explained. The first, known as CoRRIE, contains basic patient information, such as phone numbers and addresses. The second, REDCap, includes a vast amount of information related to patient visits, including numerous biomarkers like MRI scans, cognitive and memory tests, and a range of other data points.

Virani’s role, first and foremost, is to “clean” this crucial data. That means using code to find potential errors made by a team of student volunteers, who assist researchers in identifying candidates for early-onset Alzheimer’s. With such a large group of subjects, the data inevitably gets a bit messy, so Virani’s goal is to make sure the information in both databases (CoRRIE and REDCap) are consistent with one another. This data cleaning lays the essential foundation for analysis and future insights.

Rahil Virani at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center
Rahil Virani at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, based in the School of Medicine and Public Health (photo credit: Rahil Virani).

“The more data we have, the more there is to clean,” Virani said. “People forget that the cleaning part is extremely important. If you don’t clean the data, the analysis makes no sense.” Reflecting on the broader purpose of ADRC, he added, “This role gives me the privilege to work with very large and unique datasets that have a real impact, and that is an opportunity I would not have had otherwise.”

The ADRC data allow scientists to reveal new discoveries about Alzheimer’s disease and ultimately unlock benefits for public health. Today, one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and millions more struggle with the telltale symptoms of memory loss, disorientation and even hallucination. Virani and his team are the stewards of data that may hold the key to detecting Alzheimer’s early, preventing it, or stopping it in its tracks.

For more on the MS Information program, visit its webpage.

With questions about the program, contact Program Manager Jenny Greiber at

To learn more about Experiential Learning at the iSchool, visit its website or contact Brendan Casey at