Back

Date Posted... Jul 28th 2021

Categories..

Alumni

Latest

Dr Harry Fonseca Williams CO10

All things creepy crawly, venomology, trees and the LEAF charity (Little Environmental Action Foundation)

Almost since birth, Harry demonstrated a keen interest in biology, much preferring to collect bugs than to kick footballs. It may not be surprising then that he chose to attend Truro School based almost solely on the live snakes, scorpions and spiders displayed in the biology block.

“St Ives School was a close second purely due to the fact it had a pickled monkey! I never regretted my choice, I made strong bonds with most of my teachers, they tolerated my behaviour (mostly) and many of them certainly inspired me. Having Dr Spring (Head of History) as form tutor for my first two years was definitely inspirational, feeding my dream of attaining a doctorate myself one day.”

Harry joined Truro School in 2003, and was followed by his sister Kate Williams CO12, in 2010 when she joined for Sixth Form.

As a Truro School student Harry describes himself as ‘not especially academic, the most average student, and very naughty’. Despite this, he remembers ‘waking every morning looking forward to school’. As he felt he wasn’t particularly successful in exams he began to doubt if higher education was to be the path for him. For a while he considered alternative directions; a Personal Trainer, or perhaps a Field Guide in South Africa, but ultimately the exploration involved with science was too intriguing for him to miss out on, so he applied himself with renewed vigour.

Having completed Sixth Form in 2010, Harry enrolled at Cardiff University to study Zoology. After graduating from his BSc, and with a year in the Peruvian Amazon and another in the African bush under his belt Harry completed an MSc in Conservation followed by a PhD in Venomology (primarily looking at snakebites).

“I often fell short with exams, and it look me a long time to realise that they were not always the best way for me to gauge my abilities and determination.”

Harry has always had one specific career in mind:

“Some people may think I am very lucky, in that I have converted my biggest passion into a career. For as long as I can remember, I have had the same dream: to work with ‘dangerous’ animals, and while in some ways this has been a blessing, my stubborn refusal to accept any other paths has not been without problems: it hasn’t been easy to get where I am today.”

Following the completion of his PhD in Venomology from University of Reading, with 18 scientific publications and a patent, Harry was awarded the ‘Reading School of Pharmacy Researcher of the Year.’

“This is one of two awards I have ever received, the other being Truro School 2nd XV Rugby Award for ‘most improved player of the year’ in 2009, which I was very chuffed with, despite being pretty lousy at rugby.”

Harry has certainly realised his dreams and is the founding Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of ToxiVen, an Indian company supplying venoms and venom related products for scientific research and pharmaceutical drug discovery as well as recently having filed the first patent for venom detection kits in all of Asia (the primary topic of his PhD). The company is focussed on the development of small molecule/peptide-based anti-toxins, toxin-specific antibodies and anti-venoms (monovalent and polyvalent) to improve diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for envenomation, particularly for snakebites.

At present, Harry helps in the running of his company, ToxiVen, from afar as he is currently living and working in Kenya, as a Postdoc Researcher for Save the Elephants, studying the impact of a film he worked on in 2015: The Elephant Queen which received an Emmy nomination. The film highlighted the need to change attitudes among rural people towards the countries second most dangerous and most problematic animal (after snakes): the Elephant. He was also recently involved in making some educational films for a Kenyan tribe called the Samburu (with a charity called the Milgis Trust), in an effort to reduce wild-fires and plastic pollution. Harry’s role was Scientific Advisor and Co-producer.

Not wanting to rest on his laurels, two years ago, Harry also founded the Little Environmental Action Foundation (LEAF), a charity planting trees to combat the climate and biodiversity crises. The charity was launched during National Tree week (28 November – 6 December 2020). During this period, they ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a new seedling nursery, raising over £3,000.

As Chair of LEAF, Harry’s role entails coordinating 13 fellow trustees, creating and developing the constitution, and identifying and initiating projects with help from his co-founders, employees and an army of volunteers. The charity’s first project in Kenya: to undertake the planting of highly threatened native trees in the East African Coastal Forest zone.

On Monday 10 May 2021 the LEAF charity, alongside its partners including, Botanical Gardens Conservation International (bcgi.org -based out of Kew), Kenya Forestry Research Institute (kfri.org), Kivukoni Indigenous tree nursery and Pwani University) undertook the most biodiverse indigenous tree planting event in East African history turning an impoverished local University into a very special sort of jungle.

“It was a very special event, hoping to highlight that planting monocultures is not helping anyone, certainly not nature.”

Harry’s family home is just outside St Ives where, in his absence, his father Nick has the responsibility of looking after his pet snakes and fish. Harry describes his family as ‘a very close little team’. He attributes his success to them:

“Their belief in me and their (actually quite worrying) support of all my crazy ideas has enabled me to achieve my dreams and I am very lucky to have them. That said, when picking me up from my third Saturday detention with Headmaster at the time, Mr Smith (TS 2001- 2012), they were less than impressed!”

Harry returns to Cornwall regularly and spent the first lockdown here,

“I rarely return to the school, though one of these days I will once again haunt those corridors I am sure.”

A lot of Harry’s closest friends today are still those he made at Truro School. Even though their lives have taken different paths, they still offer a hugely important support network for each other.

“A lot of us have experienced times of poor mental health. Having friends who understand and with whom you share past experiences, that you can talk about it with, has been key to getting out of those low moods so many of us experience.”

Harry loves the great outdoors; he enjoys a good adventure, camping and scuba diving adventures, having attained a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) divemaster qualification. He is also a keen creator of British jungles and has grown hundreds of British trees from seed, which are also left in the care of his poor dad when he is away.

Harry offers his advice to anyone considering a similar path:

“Success at school will really help you (something I could have done better in), but it certainly isn’t everything, determination can often get you just as far as a list of straight As.

Keep a journal – you will soon come to realise that 90% of your initial doubts when approaching a task or aspirational goal, were totally unfounded and you are capable of much more than you think.”

In the future Harry hopes to continue working towards a role in academia.

“The road to my aspiration of one day becoming a professor in the tropics, may be a winding one, but I hope to one day have the joy of lecturing a classroom of students who truly value higher education (something I have already witnessed in developing nations).

I am currently in talks with executives from Apple and Discovery about a series based on toxic nature, a subject I am considered by some to be ‘expert’ on – think of a posher Steve Irwin, with a bit more science and a pinker face! It seems like a dream, and who knows if it will come true, but it is a very exciting proposition nevertheless.”

To anyone remotely confused or uncertain about their career, I would urge and encourage them to consider something connected with nature. I promise you will never regret it, and it needs your help more than ever.”

AlumniNews