Amazing Alumni: Dr. Rich Hillman

Dr. Rich Hillman, B.S. ‘64, M.S. ‘67, Ph.D. ‘69

Hillman claims to have suffered from “career ADHD,” but his search for new and exciting challenges has led to valuable contributions in research, teaching, clinical practice, and public health. 

man in biking attire
Dr. Rich Hillman enjoys mountain biking in retirement. (CVMBS photo)

​Hillman came to Colorado State University in 1960 with his heart set on a career in the outdoors, but senior courses in wildlife anatomy and histology opened the door to a research fellowship in anatomy and cell biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. (The departments of anatomy and physiology became the Department of Biomedical Sciences in 2002.)

“When I came to CSU, I was a typical immature teenager, but the entire culture helped me to mature and empowered me. My mentors prepared me for life. That’s why I stayed nine years, even though we lost 32 straight football games while I was here!” said Hillman. ​​

After studying antler growth in mule deer for his master’s degree, Hillman completed a dissertation on adrenal cortical development in golden hamsters. Hillman finished his Ph.D. in anatomy in 1969 and, as a ROTC graduate, entered the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, but his experience in electron microscopy kept him stateside at Fort Mead in an experimental research program. After two years of active duty, Hillman was contacted by a CSU mentor, Dr. William Seliger, with a job offer he couldn’t refuse. Dr. Seliger was the first chairman of the new Texas Tech Medical School, and he wanted Hillman to serve as the first professor of anatomy.

Hillman discovered that he enjoyed teaching, and his enthusiasm was rewarded with the opportunity to pursue a medical degree while teaching part-time (and raising a family).

“It was a crazy four years,” Hillman said. “I did a residency in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital in Denver. Until then, I was still planning on returning to Texas Tech to teach, but the practice of medicine was so rewarding. In research, you make an exciting discovery once a year, at most. In practice, you make new and creative diagnoses daily. Once I got a taste for practicing with people, I didn’t want to return to academics.”

Dedicated to improving public health

Hillman joined the Cheyenne Children’s Clinic in 1979, and has dedicated his career since then to improving public health in Wyoming. He followed nine years in pediatrics with seven years at the Wyoming Department of Health, administering Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and other health and wellbeing programs. After a stint in emergency medicine, he returned to public service by leading the clinical aspects of the University of Washington WWAMI Medical Education Program (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) which expanded into Wyoming in 1997.

WWAMI provides publically supported medical education to the residents of five rural states.  After completing a year of medical school in their home state, students then complete a year at the University of Washington School of Medicine, followed by two years at clinical sites throughout the region. It’s a program with which Hillman is proud to be associated.

“At the Wyoming Department of Health, we realized that we had a scarcity of doctors, especially in rural areas, and we couldn’t provide quality health programs for our residents without physicians,” said Hillman. “WWAMI recruits residents who understand and care about Wyoming, and enjoy living in rural environments. In return for three years of service after graduation, the program forgives about $150,000 in loans. It’s been a huge success, but even with 20 grads a year, we are still only filling about 35 percent of the state’s needs for physicians.”

After a lifetime of teaching, mentoring, and doctoring, Hillman’s advice to aspiring physicians is down-to-earth: “Balance your family life with the practice of medicine. We didn’t do that much in my day, but now doctors can carry a cell phone instead of a pocketful of quarters, and it’s much easier to stay connected to home.” ​​