A number of noninvasive fiber optic optical technologies are under development for real-time diagnosis of neoplasia. We investigate how the light scattering properties of cervical cells are affected by changes in nuclear morphology, DNA content, and chromatin texture, which occur during neoplastic progression. We used a Cyto-Savant computer-assisted image analysis system to acquire quantitative nuclear features measurements from 122 Feulgen-thionin-stained histopathologic sections of cervical tissue. A subset of the measured nuclear features was incorporated into a finite-difference time-domain (FDTD) model of cellular light scattering. The magnitude and angular distribution of scattered light was calculated for cervical cells as a function of pathologic grade. The nuclear atypia strongly affected light scattering properties. The increased size and elevated DNA content of nuclei in high-grade lesions caused the most significant changes in scattering intensity. The spatial dimensions of chromatin texture features and the amplitude of refractive index fluctuations within the nucleus impacted both the angular distribution of scattering angles and the total amount of scattered light. Cellular scattering is sensitive to changes in nuclear morphology that accompany neoplastic progression. Understanding the quantitative relationships between nuclear features and scattering properties will aid in the development of noninvasive optical technologies for detection of precancerous conditions. © 2003 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.