Faculty PROFile: Molecular Biophysicist Dr. Nathaniel Nucci

Learn more about Dr. Nathaniel Nucci, associate professor and Biophysics coordinator within the Physics department at Rowan’s College of Science and Mathematics.

How long have you worked at Rowan?

I’ve worked at Rowan for seven years. This is my eighth year as a faculty member.

What is your area of expertise?

I’m a molecular biophysicist. That basically means that I study the physics of biological molecules. My main area of expertise is focused on understanding how the structures of proteins and the changes to those structures influence how proteins function. This is important because understanding how protein structures relate to function allows us to understand how living systems work, and by “work,” I mean that in the true physical sense.

Proteins are the molecules that do most of the work in our bodies, from moving our muscles to digesting our food to dictating how our tissues develop as we grow. Understanding how structure-function relationships can sometimes go wrong due to mutations or other factors is key to understanding the sources of most diseases. 

Dr. Nucci smiles inside his researvh lab.

What inspires you to continue teaching?

I LOVE the process of discovery that students go through in my classes. Helping them grow and broaden their worldview is incredibly fulfilling. Every one of my students leaves at the end of a semester with a different perspective than they had at the beginning of the semester, and with that expansion of knowledge and understanding comes power! Power to affect change in the world and power to pursue career paths that will help them be happy and fulfilled. At least, that’s what I aim for! 

What advice would you have for someone who is considering biophysics, but maybe doesn’t quite understand the field or what you can with the degree?

I came to Biophysics as a discipline because I was interested in living things. I thought they were fascinating (and still do!), and I wanted to understand how they work. While my biology and biochemistry/molecular biology courses helped me understand the parts and how they fit together, it wasn’t until I took a Biophysics course and saw the way the math helps quantitatively explain how life works that I found the level of understanding I was searching for.

So, to those considering the Biophysics major, I’d say … if you want to understand biological systems, living things (human or otherwise), or health-related problems and you like math, then the Biophysics major is the best of the bio-related majors at Rowan for you.

Dr. Nucci working in lab.

Share an “aha!” moment you’ve had within your discipline that made you feel passionate about your field. 

This is challenging because I’ve had so many! The first was when I read a book as an undergraduate called “Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life.” It got me thinking about all of the components of cells, especially the ones that most scientists ignore.

But the biggest moment of amazement for me, I think, was when I saw a talk by Dr. Klaus Schulten at a Biophysical Society meeting about 10 years ago. In his talk, he presented computer simulations of an entire cell where the workings of all the molecules were visualized. This was an amazing achievement that required the efforts not only of his group but of the entire biophysics community because without the hundreds of researchers in the room having learned so much over the previous decades, the simulations would never have been possible.

That moment made me feel like our work was a part of a greater, and incredibly awesome, whole.  

What is one thing you wish people knew about your academic discipline or your research focus? 

It’s not at hard or as complicated as it sounds! When I tell people that I’m a biophysicist, they usually say something like “wow,” but my training is no different than anyone else’s. The work we do and our field in general is approachable and fun! It’s interdisciplinary, so we get to do lots of different things and focus on the problems we are interested in. It’s like an intellectual playground!

Dr. Nucci examines equipment in his lab.

Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about the Biophysics program that you’d like to share with incoming students?

I think it’s important for students to understand that our Biophysics majors get to bridge communities at Rowan. They are integrated in to the Physics department community, but they also get to build relationships with students and faculty in other majors across the college. That’s pretty unique, and it usually helps them have a pretty strong network by the time they graduate.  

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