Why be a Rock Star when you can be a Mathematician?
When people are told to imagine what their math professor will be like, most probably won’t picture a weight-lifting, scuba diving, painter with a love for rock and roll. Founder of the B.I.C.E.P. (Bio-Inspired Computation and Experiments) Lab, Dr. Nicholas Battista has many interests and his research includes “…all things squishy and biomechanics related.” In other words—he’s a mathematical biologist who uses mathematical modeling to map cardiac flow in different stages of heart development and to understand how aquatic organisms move around their fluid environments.
But the road to mathematical biology wasn’t a straight path. Dr. Battista entered college looking forward to doing black hole research. He was a physics major until he was told just how much math was needed, and then he became a math and physics double major. It wasn’t until he was working on a masters thesis in numerical relativity that his advisor caught him in the hallway and invited him to a lecture that Dr. Battista found an interest in biology.
“I was just sitting in awe,” remembered Dr. Battista, “I was completely ignorant of what biology was at the time.” The guest lecture was held by Dr. Charlie Peskin, who is a pioneer of cardiovascular blood flow research using computational code.
At the time, Dr. Battista had only taken three computer science courses as an undergraduate and masters student, so he was forced to learn the subject on the fly.
“The code was very, very sophisticated. Very computer science-y, very hackery even,” he said. This led him to start developing his own code (with tutorials) with the idea of it being a stepping stone for others. The code is on his website and it’s a way he can teach students without them ever stepping into his classroom.
If you do get the chance to take Dr. Battista’s class, you’ll find methods that are colorful and fun. Whether that’s by using colorful chalk to make it easier to follow along, or sprinkling in anecdotes to give brains a break, Dr. Battista does his best to be as mindful as possible. He’s currently in his second year here at TCNJ and even though he loves it—he never thought he’d become a teacher.
It all started with studying techniques. As a student, Dr. Battista would ask himself how he would teach the material he was trying to learn. By asking what he would incorporate into the class, he mastered difficult concepts. This led him to tutoring, which eventually led to teaching.
His first time formally teaching was in 2010, when he was tossed an 84-person Calculus 2 class with only a few days notice. “The first thing you have to do is be mindful of your words,” said Dr. Battista, and “tell people you don’t know if you don’t know.”
“Mathematics, or learning in general, is about grit,” explained Dr. Battista. “You will be wrong. Unfortunately. It’s about moving past that…No one is looking down on you for not mastering it right away. They just hope you can keep going.”
For Dr. Battista, questions from students, especially ones he doesn’t have answers to right away, are a chance to take some time and “nerd out” about the topic. It’s the things he doesn’t have answers to that makes him so enthusiastic about math—a trait that all of his students pick up on and most reciprocate.
“Probably the most motivating part of research is that he is always as excited as I am when we get some very interesting results or a good simulation finished which makes the research not only feel meaningful, but enjoyable,” said Michael Mongelli, a sophomore double major in biology and computer science.
If he isn’t teaching or researching, you might be able to find Dr. Battista in the ocean! In 2015, he and some of his graduate school colleagues (including his Ph.D. advisor) were looking for activities that weren’t necessarily science, but science related. And what could be better than suspending yourself in an outdoor lab?
A slight problem occurred when it came time for the first dive, and the lover of horror movies was staring down the set of Jaws. But it was a case of now or never, and Dr. Battista decided not to let the opportunity pass by. It’s a good thing too because scuba diving has led him and his colleagues to dive whenever they travel for conferences. In fact, this past spring break, he went to the Cayman Islands to enjoy the water.
And before he was a scuba diver, Dr. Battista confessed he tried to be a rock star. A veteran of high school bands and lover of complex guitar work, Dr. Battista said he once joked in a job interview that when he couldn’t become a rock star, he chose to be a mathematician instead. But he’s not ready to hang up some of his old band posters, rather, he decorated his office with paintings he did himself. Posting some puns about sums on his office door for fun.
Teaching isn’t all fun and games though, even teachers get nervous handing out tests.
“I remember what it was like to be a student,” laughed Dr. Battista, “You think someone is punishing you. I try to be as fair as possible…” For teachers, tests aren’t about how intelligent the students are—it’s about what teaching strategies worked and which didn’t.
“If a student isn’t doing so well,” said Dr. Battista, “Then it turns into: how did my approach lead students to think this way? How could I make it more clear to them?”
Dr. Battista remembers what it’s like to not understand the material and to feel like you’re falling behind. I didn’t have the background some of my peers had, he said, and some professors pulled me aside and were supportive. Dr. Battista gives some credit of his success to those professors and aims to be just as supportive with his students.
And it works! Dr. Battista’s willingness to help, teach, and explore avenues of solving problems with his students cultivate an environment that exudes creativity and passion.
“In working with him I gained confidence in myself because he believed in me, and that speaks magnitudes about his character.” said senior Jason Miles, a mathematics major who works in Dr. Battista’s lab. “Working with him the previous three semesters has been a privilege.”
Dr. Battista’s final piece of advice for students is to always stay curious and never stop learning, because what you know today won’t define what you know tomorrow.
– Kerry Hennessy ‘21
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