She was one of five women scientists from around the world – one from each continent – named as 2012 Laureates at the annual award ceremony in Paris.
The $100,000 award recognises Professor Ashcroft’s work in advancing understanding of insulin secretion and a type of diabetes that develops in the first months of life.
Professor Ashcroft is a Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford.
She said: ‘This award honours not only myself but also the team of dedicated scientists and collaborators with whom I have worked. I have been enormously fortunate: there is nothing more exciting or more rewarding than discovering something new.’
In 1984, Professor Ashcroft discovered the missing link connecting an increase in the blood sugar level, as happens after you eat a chocolate bar for example, to secretion of the hormone insulin. If this process fails, it leads to diabetes.
In subsequent studies, she unravelled how genetic mutations in this protein cause a rare inherited condition, known as neonatal diabetes, in which patients develop diabetes soon after birth. This has enabled many people with neonatal diabetes to switch to a better form of medication.
Professor Gunter Blobel, president of the award jury and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1999, said: ‘This award is testament to Professor Ashcroft's intellectual achievements and her energy, dedication and passion for her research. The judges were also struck by her commitment to communicating science to the general public. She is an inspirational role model for younger female scientists.’
The For Women in Science Programme is run by the L’Oréal Corporate Foundation and UNESCO. The programme names five laureates each year, one from each continent, to recognise the groundbreaking achievements of leading female scientists.