Dr. Tad Brunye spends most of his time wondering what Soldiers have on their minds.

That's his job as a member of the Cognitive Science Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. And Brunye is so good at it that he received one of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers handed out in an Oct. 14 ceremony at the White House.

Former President Bill Clinton established the prestigious awards in 1996, recognizing recipients for innovative research and community service early in their careers.

"It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers -- careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the nation," said President Barack Obama in a Sept. 26 press release. "That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens."

Brunye, 33, was among 94 honorees this year. Word of the award caught him completely off guard.

"I was really surprised, because I actually was unaware that I had been nominated in the first place," Brunye said. "It's a commentary on how much Natick values cognitive science efforts, which is fantastic. The Cognitive Science Team was only established a few years ago, so it's extremely rewarding for us to get such high-level recognition for our work.

"The award was for early career work, so it's all-inclusive. It's not any particular, specific research program that we have. We have multiple programs on our team."

A Harmony, Me., native, Brunye attended the University of New Hampshire before completing his bachelor's degree in biopsychology at State University of New York-Binghamton.

"I started off as an economics major," Brunye recalled. "I took one psych class, and it grabbed me. I really liked it."

Brunye went on to earn a master's degree and doctorate in experimental cognition at Tufts University, where he also teaches. He came to Natick 4 ½ years ago.

"A lot of my work is centered around this notion that a lot of the decisions we make, particularly in our spatial environments, are guided by various sorts of subconscious, implicit processes," Brunye said. "The one that we've gotten a lot of publicity for is the tendency for navigators to avoid generally north-going routes. Almost 70 percent of the time, they'll preferentially choose the one that goes to the south.

"We have this understanding now that there are some implicit associations that people make between north and up and south and down. It's more difficult to climb a ladder than it is to fall off the ladder. Even as a child, up was much more difficult than down."

As Brunye pointed out, those kinds of tendencies have implications for what happens on the battlefield.

"So how does that relate to the Soldier?" Brunye said. "Well, Soldiers have to plan routes, plan operational duties on a daily basis, especially those in leadership positions. In conjunction with other explicit and implicit navigation strategies that have been identified in the scientific literature, we can begin to develop models that reliably predict navigation behavior, and possibly develop interventions to reduce the use of strategies that lead to sub-optimal route selection."

Although he has been recognized for his early accomplishments in the field, Brunye sees years of research ahead for himself and others in cognitive science.

"A lot of it's sort of under the hood, so to speak, and it's really difficult to capture," Brunye said. "That's why this field is growing in terms of importance and popularity within the Army. The mystery of how the mind works makes it very likely that this type of research will remain the focus for several centuries to come. After all, if the mind were so simple to understand, we'd be too simple to understand it."