She dearly values her mobility, having spent decades as a physical therapist helping people recover from impairments caused by aging, injury, and illness. 

Once you’re part of UCSF, you never really leave.

NANCY NIES BYL, BS ’63, MPH, PHD

“I’ve taught people to support and stabilize their bodies and to stay healthy so they can enjoy life to the maximum,” she says. “And I try to do that too.” 

Commitment to her craft

Inspired by a volunteer stint at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital while in high school, Byl earned a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from UCSF. After working at hospitals in Oakland and Stockton, she earned a master’s degree in public health from UC Berkeley. 

Byl’s commitment to reach beyond the clinic to do research, teaching, and community service motivated her – after practicing for 20 years – to earn a PhD from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University’s Joint Program in Special Education. She later became chair of the UCSF Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science. 

The future of mobility

Byl’s work focuses on understanding neuroplasticity and retraining the nervous system following Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and spinal injuries, as well as disabilities associated with focal hand dystonia in musicians. She has also tested new assistive technologies that increase strength and mobility, from bodyweight-supported treadmills to wearable robotics. 

“A lot of exciting things are happening with rehabilitation robotics,” Byl says. “Imagery and virtual reality techniques can help a patient’s brain relearn tasks. Then we can use assistive technologies to help them become ambulatory.” Online consultations also are becoming more feasible, she adds, as wireless technologies allow therapists to monitor patients remotely, minimizing in-person visits and reducing costs. 

UCSF for life

UCSF honored Byl’s many accomplishments with the Alumni Excellence Award. Her husband, UCSF head and neck surgeon Frederick Byl, MD ’64, accompanied her to the ceremony. The couple has been associated with UCSF for more than 50 years. Two of their three children, plus two sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law, are UC graduates. 

“The university has been very good to me – as a student, researcher, department chair, and now as an emeritus professor,” she says. “Once you’re part of UCSF, you never really leave.”

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