As a former international student, Pat Thilakasiri – a researcher in the Cancer Therapeutics Development Group at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) – knows all too well what it’s like to move far away from family and friends to study in a new country.

Many international students leave their usual support networks behind to follow their dream of studying abroad. Many need to undertake part-time or casual work to support themselves while on a student visa.

When news broke of the Coronavirus pandemic, Pat had an inkling that international students would be seriously impacted, so he quickly began to prepare a strategy to support those he thought would be in need.

“With the threat of mass job losses, and without Australian citizenship, I knew early on that many international students would not have money for food, medical or legal assistance, and I knew they would not be eligible for government assistance,” he said.

Pat reached out to his network on Facebook and after a rush of offers to help, on 29 March 2020 he was able to send out his first lot of food packages, containing grocery items that would last for up to two weeks.

“Lockdown meant that many people lost their jobs. There was a group of people that no-one could seem to help – international students. They didn’t have money to pay rent or feed themselves. They were in deep trouble, they were on their own, and we needed to help them,” says Pat.

Pat’s ‘food bag’ initiative for international students has since spread to all the states and territories around Australia (there are groups in each state and territory to coordinate) with some international groups following suit.

So far, Pat estimates they have helped around 3,000 international students across Australia, with the majority located in Victoria and New South Wales. Pat and his supporters are still packing food bags from four distribution centres around Victoria that they have set up.

This isn’t the first time Pat has helped those in need. He coordinated similar projects for people affected by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, devastating floods, and for individuals needing housing, or school books.

So, how does he juggle all of this with his full-time job as a scientist at ONJCRI (plus a weekly volunteer job as radio show host on a community radio station)? It’s all about time management, he says. It’s done outside of working hours and he has a lot of people to help him.

“All of us come together. People have donated a lot of food, housing and professional services for these students, including doctors, psychologists and lawyers, who have provided their services free of charge. No money is collected or exchanged – it’s all about providing food and services.”

Pat is working on gastric and breast cancer projects at ONJCRI and, along with his team, is repurposing a drug, Bazedoxifene, and its analogues to treat cancers by targeting the JAK STAT3 pathway (a chain of interactions between proteins in a cell which is involved in processes such as immunity, cell division, cell death and tumour formation).

In addition to this important research, it’s clear that charity is also a huge part of Pat’s life.

“I think as a human you should always help other people. It is our ultimate duty to help whoever is in trouble. In this case, Coronavirus doesn’t distinguish whether you are white, whether you are from Sri Lanka, whether you are rich or poor. It’s simple – when people are in need, people should help each other.”