An Austrian by birth, he studied biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vienna with Peter Schuster and Karl Sigmund. He received his Ph.D. sub auspiciis praesidentis in 1989. He went to the University of Oxford as an Erwin Schršoedinger Scholar and worked there with Robert May, the later Lord May of Oxford, with whom he co-authored numerous articles and his first book, "Virus Dynamics". Nowak held Junior Research Fellowships at Wolfson College and later Keble College. He was a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. In 1997 Nowak became Professor of Mathematical Biology in Oxford. In 1998 he moved to Princeton to establish the first program in theoretical biology at the Institute for Advanced Study. He received his present position at Harvard University in 2003.
A corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Nowak is the recipient of several prizes including the Weldon Memorial Prize of Oxford University, the David Starr Jordan Prize of Stanford University and the Akira Okubo Prize of the Society for Mathematical Biology. Nowak is the author of over 350 papers and four books. Evolutionary Dynamics (2006) provides an overview of the powerful yet simple laws that govern the evolution of living systems. SuperCooperators (2011) argues that cooperation is the third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and selection.