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Dr. Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D.

Dr. Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D.

VA Researcher Named One of U.S.' Top Female Scientists

March 15, 2024

By Rachel Warden
Rocky Mountain MIRECC for Suicide Prevention

"It is my hope that my research efforts will result in increased prevention of suicide as well as psychiatric disorders."

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The VA Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center for Suicide Prevention associate director has been named as one of the United States’ Top Female Scientists for 2023 by

This is the second year in a row that Dr. Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., made the list, which is based on the number of peer reviewed publications and citations throughout the scientist’s career: 424 publications and 33,647 citations in her case.

“In the early years of my career, I was often one of the few women in committees or providing leadership representation,” said Yurgelun-Todd, who is now a professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine and the vice chair for research at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah.  “This served to challenge me and encouraged me to pursue a research career.”

Yurgelun-Todd is a Harvard-trained neuropsychologist whose research focuses on how the brain affects behavior and includes topics such as psychiatry, developmental neuroscience, illicit substance use, brain imaging and cannabis.  Notably, her 2007 paper, “Emotional and Cognitive Changes During Adolescence,” gained wide attention and influenced how the scientific community understands brain development. 

By the time she joined the VA in 2008, to study psychiatric disorders in Veterans and work on suicide prevention strategies, Yurgelun-Todd was already a well-established clinical neuropsychologist with a long-standing interest in serious mental illness.

“My early research focused on diminishment of cognition and decision making as it related to psychiatric disorders,” she said. “This area was particularly relevant to understanding risk for suicide.”

Suicide prevention is VA’s top clinical priority – an area that Yurgelun-Todd is well suited to take on. Her work for VA is focused on Veteran suicide prevention through the application of neuroimaging approaches and neurocognitive assessments. For example, imaging data from Veterans with a suicide attempt in their history showed brain white matter connections that were different than Veterans with suicidal ideations but no suicide behavior. Moreover, these white matter changes were associated with a measure of impulsivity, suggesting there may be distinctive neurobiological markers for individuals with suicide attempts.

“It is my hope that my research efforts will result in increased prevention of suicide as well as psychiatric disorders,” she said, looking to the future.  “While we also focus on novel and more sustained treatment interventions, the ultimate goal would be to prevent behavioral disorders.”

While women have traditionally been underrepresented in many fields of science, Yurgelun-Todd is helping to close the gender gap by overcoming challenges in competing for extramural funding, developing leadership roles in the scientific community, and establishing national level collaborations. Her contributions demonstrate the heights women can achieve, but she cautioned against becoming obsessed with the pursuit of a science career.
“It is important to attend to personal life as well as career goals,” Yurgelun-Todd said.  “Continue to put effort in maintaining that balance.”

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Dial 988 then Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at

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