Woman on a mission: Miss Universe Ireland on her career at NASA

She was crowned our first biracial Miss Universe Ireland - and she wants her career as a NASA director to be a role model for other girls to embrace STEM. Ahead of Space Week, Esther McCarthy meets the inspiring Fionnghuala O’Reilly

Fionnghuala O’Reilly
Fionnghuala O’Reilly

Fionnghuala O’Reilly is a woman on a mission — to help schoolgirls dream big when it comes to a career in maths and sciences.

Her passion for maths has brought her all the way to a role as a director of the NASA Space Apps Challenge, and now she’s using her profile as Miss Universe Ireland to show our girls the possibilities such a career can bring.

After all, she says, a love of fashion and beauty and a fascination with all things STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are not mutually exclusive.

“A lot of girls think that because they have an interest in beauty for example, or they want to get into fashion, they don’t think or realise that that does not negate or bar your interest from subjects like maths and science,” she says.

“And sometimes women in these kinds of industries get stereotyped that they don’t have other interests. But I think it’s just simply not true. And the one way that we can combat that is by showing the different types of women and the different types of people that are actually doing these jobs.”

Crowned our first biracial Miss Universe Ireland in August, O’Reilly says she is “very proud” to talk about her story in a country that is more diverse than ever. She feels that conventions and traditions have prevented Irish girls from considering STEM but that this is rapidly changing.

She thinks it’s down to the fact that women for a long time were not encouraged to work outside of the home and when they did, they were discouraged from studying subjects considered harder, like maths and sciences. As a child she was passionate about maths, and growing up in an almost entirely female household, saw no reason why not to apply it to her career choice.

"Maths was my favourite subject growing up. I grew up in a family of all women, I had five sisters so there wasn’t really anyone to discourage me or to say: ‘Well maybe you’d be good at something else.’

In Ireland there are very few women that are working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. It’s very disproportionate to what the numbers of the actual population are and that’s one of my goals.

"I work in a male-dominated field and I’m a woman. I am also a woman of colour and I know what it feels like to have these dreams and have these goals but then to work in an industry where sometimes you can feel like the odd one out. Where sometimes you can feel barred from going after your highest goal because there simply isn’t anyone that really looks like you doing these kinds of things.

Woman on a mission: Miss Universe Ireland on her career at NASA

“It does have a subconscious effect on you whether you know it or not. And I want to use the role of Miss Universe Ireland to be able to speak about my experiences in the hope that it helps other young girls and other young people who have diverse backgrounds. So that they know that this is something that they absolutely can and should do if they’re interested.”

Did growing up among so many other women help? “Oh it absolutely helped, growing up in a massive family of women, because I learned that the power of a woman is in her ability to envision and manifest the life that she wants for herself. I think that I grew up learning about how powerful women can be and that no one’s individual experience has to look the same way. I think there are a lot of similarities between me and my sisters, but there are also a lot of differences and being sisterly and having sisterhood is about respecting one another regardless of those differences.”

She’s looking forward to meeting the like-minded and the STEM curious as part of Space Week at Blackrock Castle Observatory next week. “There are events going on all around Ireland where the community can get involved with learning about space and participating in events that are informative but also just fun.

“I think that’s what Space Week is all about, bringing something very far away very close to home. I’m looking forward to participating in a few different talks and meeting with students. It’s actually one of the best bits of the job. You really see the impact of what you’re doing when you’re sitting with students and young people.”

O’Reilly has a truly international background. Born to an Irish father and a mother from San Francisco, her parents met and fell in love when her dad moved to the city after winning a visa lottery. Making a home for himself in the US, he worked as a bricklayer and painter - but when the couple married, they moved back to Ireland to start a family. When her father went on to work in the US military, his job meant the family moved country frequently — she rarely spent more than a couple of years in the one place.

“I travelled a lot. My family is full of uniformed men and military men. My grandfather was a former deputy commissioner of the Garda. And my grandfather on my mum’s side was also in the United States Army and my dad, when he came back, he was thinking: ‘What can I do to get a career started that will help me build a family?’

He enlisted in the United States Army and has been in for almost 30 years. He’s currently living in Mozambique in Africa. He’s a diplomat now and a senior defence official in the United States Army.

Still, Ireland remained a big constant in family life, a place to where they would frequently return as many of their relatives live in Dublin. She never felt torn by being on the move — in fact she feels that it has impacted on her in good ways.

“One of the most positive things that came out of it was it really gave me and my sisters a passion for travel and learning other cultures and searching for new experiences in life. I think it taught us an understanding of how beautiful the world and different cultures are,” she says.

“It’s something I think that is ingrained in all of us. And being able to travel together to so many places at such a young age, it made us closer because I was able to travel essentially with my best friends. A lot of military children come from smaller families and I’ve heard that some have a hard time with travelling but I never felt that way because I had so many sisters and we’re all pretty close in age.

“But when I went to university I had never lived anywhere longer than two or three years in a row and my degree was four years. Every summer and every winter break as soon as I could go anywhere I was off because I was starting to get stir crazy. I’d never known what it was like to have to stay in one place for such a long amount of time.”

Woman on a mission: Miss Universe Ireland on her career at NASA

As well as her Miss Universe Ireland duties, O’Reilly currently works remotely in Dublin as a data analyst for NASA as part of their Space Apps Challenge. She describes it as an “international hackathon” based in 200 locations around the world, where experts pool their skills and resources to help solve problems and challenges.

Every year we put out about five different challenge themes and there’s about 20 to 25 different projects that you can work on. There are thousands of projects that come out that all are basically trying to help us answer some really tough problems. They’re all Earth, science and space-innovation themed issues.

"Some are looking towards other planets but there are some projects that address real world issues here on Earth as well.

“In recent years we’ve seen a massive amount of fires that have popped up in forests and places all around the world. These wildfires are getting out of control. And one of our challenges for participants is to create innovation and to use real data to create apps that can help track these fires, simulations that will help us predict, given the current data that we have, what will happen if this continues on in the way it does. It’s been honestly a phenomenal time because you feel like you’re making real change in the world.”

- For details of Space Week, log on to www.spaceweek.ie

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