Name: Frances Mary Ashcroft
Degree(s): BA, PhD, DSc (all from the University of Cambridge)
Graduate School: University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Undergraduate Institution: University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Current Position/Univ.: Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Research Interest(s): My team studies the mechanism of insulin release and the tiny pores, known as ion channels, that are responsible for the conduction of nerve and muscle impulses (in insulin-secreting cells, ion channels serve as the target for the drugs used to treat type 2 diabetes). The blood sugar level is tightly controlled a too high or too low level is bad for you. Insulin is the only hormone that is capable of lowering the blood sugar concentration, and it is released from the beta-cells of the pancreas in response to raised blood sugar levels (for example after a meal). Lack of insulin results in diabetes mellitus - a disease characterised by high blood sugar levels. Research in my lab is aimed at understanding just how a rise in the blood sugar level causes the pancreatic beta-cells to release insulin and what goes wrong with this process in the adult form of diabetes (type 2 diabetes). My latest initiative, together with Professor Kay Davies, is the Oxford Centre for Gene Function, a multidisciplinary research centre that aims to decode the information generated by the Human Genome Project and characterize the function of human genes.

I grew up in the wilds of Dorset, England, where the beautiful countryside stimulated an abiding interest in the natural world. I spent most of my childhood rambling about the countryside searching for wild orchids, bird watching, badger watching, and exploring rock pools. I read voraciously, anything and everything, not just books about science, but also novels and poetry. I think the thing that drove me into science was plain curiosity - I just wanted to understand how things work.

I went to University in Cambridge, where I read Natural Science and remained there to do a doctorate in Zoology. After short periods at Leicester and Los Angeles, I moved to Oxford where I was appointed to a Lectureship in Physiology in 1990 and to a Professorship in 1996. In 1999 I was elected as the 8000th Fellow of the Royal Society of London (one of the few women Fellows). The joy of a life is science is its freedom and its enormous diversity. From the very first, I was encouraged to have my own ideas, and to follow them through. The range of things I spend my days doing is enormous: peering down microscopes, fixing electronics, writing, lecturing, reading, travelling (this year I will give talks in France, Austria, United States, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Italy and Denmark), teaching, playing with all kinds of wonderful equipment, and talking - always talking with colleagues both in the lab and all over the world about ideas.

I divide my time between scientific research, teaching medical students, writing books and fundraising. I've written over 120 research papers and three books - two textbooks and one book for the general reader (Life at the Extremes, about the science of human survival, published by Harper Collins). I am also very interested in the relationship of science with literature and the visual arts, and I recently produced an exhibition with the artist Benedict Rubbra about the different ways that artists and scientists view the world.

For more information on Frances Mary Ashcroft, see:

  • Ashcroft's book, Life at Extremes

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