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Ed Symons – Darwin Tree of Life Project

Deloitte alumnus Ed Symons on working at the Darwin Tree of Life project which is transforming biology, conservation and biotechnology through genomics.

1. Tell us about your role and how you became involved in sequencing genomics.

I’m an Associate Director of Operations at the Darwin Tree of Life project. The project is a consortium of many partners across the UK, including the Wellcome Trust, who are all committed to generating large-scale genomic sequences of all species, and making them available to scientists globally. Having this knowledge could transform how we understand the natural world.

In my role, I combine my passion for the science, with my finance skills from Deloitte, to manage the project’s in-house operations. This is a large-scale genomics project generating many petabytes of data. I’m responsible for seeking additional sources of funding and ensuring we have the correct resources, people and tools to produce the genomes.

2. What challenges do you face to ensure scientific data from labs is valued in the decision-making process?

Genomics is a comparatively new science and one of our key challenges is educating people on what genomics is, and how it can be used. If we can understand how the natural world works by mapping its DNA, we could change how we work with plants and land, and how we treat illness and disease. We’re having conversations with government departments and private organisations on how we can translate genomics to solve challenges in land management, conservation and food security.

3. How is your organisation using genomics to understand the impact of climate change?

There is huge potential to use genomics to monitor farm production and conservation areas. We’re speaking with companies in the agriculture industry as genomic research can reveal which plants are resistant to climate change, and which crops are at risk to a rise in temperatures. We can also use environmental DNA to sample air and water which can then be used to monitor animal populations and land use, and see how they are affected by climate change. 

4. What has been the most unusual place your team has worked to collect specimens? 

We’ve collected specimens from the slopes of the Scottish Highlands to the bottom of estuaries in Plymouth Sound. We also partner with experts in the natural world who are incredibly enthusiastic about their particular fields, from bryophyte (little green moss) collectors to the Earthworm Society. We have even sequenced a nematode worm which only has 1,000 cells and therefore only a miniscule amount of DNA. Scientists at the Sanger Institute were able to solve the challenge of making a genome out of this incredibly tiny species which is only 0.1mm long. We’ve also solved the technical hurdles of constructing a genome for species with the very largest genomes. The common mistletoe has a genome 30 times longer than a human, which represented a tricky computational challenge.

5. How have you stayed connected to Deloitte and with former colleagues? 

I like to know how the firm is doing, and I always keep an eye out for Deloitte in the news, on social media and by reading the alumni newsletter. I made good friends while completing my audit exams, and although we have all taken different paths, we keep in touch in various ways.  

6. Is there a particular nugget or learning from Deloitte you’d like to share which has impacted on your career?

I use the leadership skills I learned in Deloitte’s audit team every day. Deloitte taught me to challenge in an open and constructive way, to push for continuous improvement, and to break down complex technical challenges to find solutions. Deloitte is also great at teaching people to have a voice, and I work with my team to encourage them to speak up with the right ideas and knowledge.


Read more Deloitte alumni profiles:

Amelia Ashton-Jones, SailGP - growing a sailing event

Jamie Wood, Co-founder of Ambr, preventing workplace burnout and stress

Nneka Orji, Senior Director in Asset and Weath Management, on the power of career sponsorship


The UK Deloitte Alumni Network - Colleagues for Life

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