NATICK, Mass. (July 27, 2012) -- Science can have profound impacts on Soldiers' lives.

That message came through loud and clear July 26 at Natick Soldier Systems Center, or NSSC, where basic research scientists from the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, known as NSRDEC, offered their inaugural "Science for the Soldier Day."

The idea was to demonstrate the connection between basic science and the new technologies used by Soldiers in the field. NSRDEC researchers accomplished that by using 25 hands-on, interactive displays in NSSC's Lord Community Center. The displays covered everything from mood and cognition to converting waste to energy.

For NSSC community members, the displays shed light on some of what happens behind laboratory doors at Natick.

"People get to tell their story," said Jane Simpson, executive assistant to the NSRDEC chief scientist.

One of those with an entertaining story was Tad Brunye, who exudes enthusiasm for his job. If you like to believe that you have an innate sense of direction, however, Brunye may challenge that. As a member of the NSRDEC Cognitive Science Team who last year earned one of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, why would Brunye steer you wrong?

"People don't even realize what they're considering when they're navigating in an environment," Brunye said. "There (are) actually predictable ways that they are biased."

Brunye's studies into spatial performance have produced data that shows these biases.

"People actually prefer the long and straight route leading towards a destination," Brunye said. "They don't like the curvy route, even though that long, straight route might end up longer."

According to Brunye, left-handers equate the left with positive things and the right with negative things. Right-handers have the opposite bias.

"The way that we exert positive change onto our environment," said Brunye, "is through our dominant hands."

And Brunye's research has its ups and downs -- literally.

"People associate the north direction with uphill," said Brunye, "the south direction with downhill."

How does Brunye's research translate to the battlefield?

"You can use this to predict not just the behavior of a Soldier out in the environment, but the behavior of an adversary," said Brunye, "for instance, someone fleeing from an IED (improvised explosive device) site."

While Brunye discussed people's interpretations of the world around them, Chris Drew was talking about the huge benefits of something they can't even see.

"We're working on some nanomaterials for a whole bunch of different uses -- nanoparticles and nanofibers, primarily," Drew said. "The idea is (with) nanomaterials, as you make them smaller, you get more service area for the same amount of materials."

Drew used Soldiers' protective gloves as an example. Nanofibers can make it possible to produce thinner gloves that won't lose their protective qualities, which improves dexterity.

"If you increase the path that a molecule of liquid or a molecule of gas has to travel to get to your skin you can have a thinner material. The time to penetration can be the same for a thinner material," Drew said. "You get the same amount of protection with less material. You get a better dexterity with the same amount of protection."

Storing energy in uniforms is another goal of nanotechnology research at NSRDEC.

"You're already wearing a jacket. You're already wearing a shirt," Drew said. "Some of your power could come from that. That's one less thing you have to carry around, to worry about."

Tyler Brown also was thinking about what Soldiers must carry. Downstairs in the Lord Community Center, he helped visitors pull on 88 pounds of gear and do a few agility tests that would be much easier without that weight.

"The idea is, it's much easier to grasp," said Brown of Soldier loads. "If you actually do it, you go, 'Oh.'"

"The little kids loved it. They thought it was cool to put on the equipment. It's a good way to demonstrate the concept."

As Brown pointed out, load carriage studies were once done primarily on treadmills to assess how biomechanics change.

"How often does somebody out on the battlefield walk a treadmill?" Brown said. "What we're trying to do is take the research to the next step, where we bring in more operation-related tasks to do an assessment of the effects of load carriage.

"We're going to start looking for transitional periods of movement, where a Soldier starts walking and has to change direction -- so a walk to a run, a run to a stop, and running to cutting to get under cover, to get out of the way -- those sorts of things. We think it's that period of time where there's the serious degradation of performance, where performance is seriously affected."