Growing a Diverse Community
Managing large engineering projects and positively impacting our culture.
James Paranilam is a doer: He’s deeply focused on connecting communities, not only to positively affect daily work at the institute, but also to help staff forge meaningful communities. He helped found Invision, a committee that works to establish and uphold an inclusive environment for our staff, and has contributed to other staff-led groups across the institute. Read on to learn how engineering led him to the institute and why he finds his work so satisfying.
Why are diversity and inclusion so important to you?
My parents helped build the Indian community in Baltimore. That got me into the idea of focusing on diversity. While earning my degree at Towson University, a friend of mine and I started its South Asian Student Association. We mixed with other cultural groups, held a lot of functions, and elevated South Asians on campus. It started for social reasons, bringing together about two dozen people of South Asian descent and grew into bringing hundreds of Towson students together to celebrate South Asian culture. That process also allowed me to learn how to create and fund a group like that, which led to work with the university’s diversity office and an invitation to participate in other diversity initiatives at Towson University.
How did you land at STScI?
I had a software internship while I was an undergraduate. I worked as a tester and then managed a group of student testers during my junior and senior years. That experience helped me land a full-time position at STScI. I started out in engineering as a junior tester and as my responsibilities grew, I began working with our partners, like NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, to coordinate the work between our groups. I’ve always been flexible, which is why I’ve been asked to join new projects over the years, including the Proposal Planning System and the Astronomer’s Proposal Tool. In every project I’ve worked on, there’s a great team dynamic.
What does your role as a senior system test engineer entail?
Recently, I’ve worked on a reporting system used to track software needs for projects, which has been in place for more than 20 years. We’re moving to a more agile system that is visually designed. I’ve been part of a team that worked with several departments to develop a partnership that will support this move.
How have you helped initiate diversity projects at the institute?
I’ve been working with various groups at STScI for more than five years. About two and half years ago, our diversity groups for the engineering and science divisions came together to lay out a vision of how an umbrella group should function. I was part of a small group that formulated and shared the idea with our director, who immediately supported our work and created Invision. We hit the ground running and enlisted help from all divisions and our divisional diversity and inclusion teams. We wanted the working group to represent as many of the various perspectives at STScI as we could. Invision addresses various aspects of inclusion and culture differences, including gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, race, ethnic and cultural background, religion, educational background, age, people with disabilities, and occupation. This group has grown and changed—and will continue to evolve. My position is: The institute is a big part of my world. Why not try to make it better?
Why do you enjoy working at STScI?
I love my work and the people I work with. I also deeply appreciate that this position allows me to be a family guy. I’ve coached my kids’ soccer and baseball teams. I know I can leave when I need to pick up one of my children early if they’re sick or have an appointment. There’s a lot of flexibility, which is one more reason why working at the institute is so rewarding.
Article updated March 2019.