Fionnghuala O’Reilly is the first biracial Miss Universe Ireland, and also does IT work for Nasa. She tells Helen O’Callaghan how the Covid-19 crisis has made both jobs that bit trickier
When Fionnghuala O’Reilly was crowned Miss Universe Ireland last August, nobody expected the world would be grappling with Coronavirus midway through her reign.
She’s the first ever biracial Miss Universe Ireland and Nasa employee to compete at Miss Universe. Like everybody else, the Swords-based 26-year-old has seen her daily schedules upended by Covid-19.
Fionnghuala — her mother’s from San Francisco, her dad from Dublin — is a director of the Nasa Space Apps Challenge. She’s also a Nasa Datanaut — part of a highly competitive programme comprising engineers and scientists, who engage with Nasa’s open data to create innovative new thinking, processes and products.
It has been “pretty hard”, she says, to see events postponed or cancelled where she was due to talk in the context of her work as a systems engineer and director of the Nasa Space Apps Challenge. And it has been hard to see Miss Universe Ireland duties cancelled.
“In addition to going to St Patrick’s Day in Boston, I was planning to attend Ireland Day at the New York Stock Exchange. So many people are trying to figure out how to maintain a sense of normality — and community — at this time. For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how I can best serve the community.”
She’d like to impact education for students, whose studies have been suspended.
“I’m working on creating programmes for social media, for YouTube and IGTV, so I can interact with young people around really cool science and tech projects they can do at home to keep interest going in school activities.”
Covid-19 is anxiety-provoking all on its own, but the self-isolation and physical distancing required to combat it has thrown up huge challenges for most of us, especially those transitioning to remote working. It can seem a daunting ask — but it doesn’t have to be, says Fionnghuala, no stranger to working remotely, having done so for Nasa from Dublin.
She works from 9 or 10am to 6/7pm. “I work in my bedroom. I set up my desk near the window, facing the light.”
Rules and boundaries are vital for working remotely, she says. And she has some good tips for keeping focused during your workday.
“I’ve seen peers challenged by having to sit still and work from home. Organise yourself and stick to the plan. On a Sunday night, I make a list of all the goals I’d like to achieve for the entire week and I also create a plan for each day.”
For some people, getting dressed for work puts them in the right mindset, but this isn’t super-important for Fionnghuala. But she likes a completely silent work-space.
“I’m more productive. I’d be distracted if I were to listen to music or podcasts.” It’s good to know what might tempt you away from work. For her, it’s calls or text messages from family. While one of her five sisters lives in Dublin, most of her family live in different time zones. “Maybe they’re not at work just yet, but I am. Knowing I work from home, they think it’s easier to access me. I have to be pretty firm or turn the phone on silent.”
This is particularly difficult when her university-going sister calls her. “She calls me all the time for help with things like term papers. I love to help but I have to remind myself to call her back later,” says Fionnghuala, who also has to resist “going down rabbit holes” when she finds something interesting but un-related to work.
“Half an hour later, I’ve gone completely off-track what I’m meant to be doing.”
She’s very familiar with those times when it’s oh so hard to start an assignment and you’ll do anything but.
“Today I started an article I should’ve started a week ago but that I couldn’t for the life of me begin. My energy was low and, with everything going on in the world, I was thinking of my own situation and of what’s going to happen to my family. And on top of it all, I had to write this article — I built it up in my mind and couldn’t start. Today I just broke it down — got a title, put down some bullet points. Once I had the bare bones down, it was so much easier to get through.”
Other tips include taking breaks (“make yourself something to eat, do some exercise at home”) and using all available tools to maximise your productivity (“I use calendars and applications that allow me send invites to people I have to talk to at different times”).
And find a co-worker, someone to buddy up with, so you don’t feel you’re working on a planet in an alternate universe.
Right now, with her mum in America, a sister in New York, another in LA and her Irish granny in self-imposed quarantine in Dublin, Fionnghuala just wants her family to be safe. Her dad’s a senior defence official in the US army, living and working in the US embassy in Mozambique, where he’s in quarantine after travelling in Germany.
“Everyone’s going through different changes because the places we live in have different rules. But we’re doing great. Spirits are good. It’s so great we have technology — we’re calling, texting and checking in on each other every day.”