Research Spotlight


Rich Willy, PT, PhD

Faculty/Staff Academic Background Information:

I have been a physical therapist for over 20 years (Ohio University MPT 1999). I had the opportunity to participate in clinical research as a PT student, and I loved every minute of it. Despite knowing that I wanted to eventually pursue a research career, I worked clinically as a physical therapist in occupational medicine and sports medicine settings after graduation.  After eventually serving as vice president of a small physical therapy company where I managed 5 physical therapy clinics with over 50 employees, I realized that I needed to pursue a PhD if I ever wanted to return to research. I attended the University of Delaware and obtained my PhD in biomechanics and movement sciences in 2011. My PhD dissertation was on the biomechanics and treatment of runners with patellofemoral pain, also known as “runner’s knee.” Up to 25% of Americans experience patellofemoral pain and it is the number 1 reason why athletes seek care in sports medicine clinics. I continue to study persons with patellofemoral pain in our laboratory at the University of Montana School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, where I have been a tenure-track faculty member since 2017.

What do you like most about the field of Physical Therapy?

A physical therapist’s ability to empower patients to take control of their injury is why I am a physical therapist. Physical therapists do not fix people; instead, they work with patients to develop a plan to recover from their injuries or conditions so that they can return to their life and leisure activities.

What have been some highlights of your career thus far?

I am probably most proud of the students who I have mentored in my career. Before going on to successful clinical careers, former physical therapy students of mine have presented over 30 national and international presentations and published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles. Additionally, I was recently the first author on the clinical practice guideline for the treatment of patellofemoral pain that was published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy in September 2019. This guideline is a healthcare policy document that will be used to guide PT education, insurance reimbursement and treatment strategies for persons with patellofemoral pain.

Is there any advice you would give students interested in pursuing a career in Physical Therapy?

Diversify your clinical volunteer experiences across a variety of physical therapy settings so that you have a clear idea what being a physical therapist is all about. Find a mentor who can provide you with honest career advice and maintain that relationship. Lastly, PT school is hard to get into and while it may be tempting to devote all of your time to studying, it is critically important to have passions that lie outside of your schoolwork so that you can have a positive work-life balance.

What do you like most about living in Missoula and working at the University of Montana? 

I love how our students are down to earth, hardworking, and have an altruistic approach to life. Knowing that our students are highly sought after and were accepted into multiple physical therapy schools, it is humbling to me that they have chosen the University of Montana and our program to pursue their physical therapy training. With the opportunity to pursue so many diverse activities outside of school, Missoula is a great place to live if you are a student, staff or a faculty member. I consider myself and my family lucky to call Missoula and the University of Montana home.