Fionnghuala O’Reilly made history in 2019 when she became the first woman of color to be crowned Miss Universe Ireland.
But this sister, affectionately known as “Fig,” is about way more than evening gowns and swimsuits. She utilizes her international platform to inspire other Black women to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Black women currently account for only one percent of engineering Bachelor’s degrees. As the founder of Space to Reach, a professional networking platform that connects Black and Brown women in STEM to mentorship and employment opportunities in the tech industry, O’Reilly hopes to see that number grow.
O’Reilly, whose father is Irish and mother is African American, earned her degree in systems engineering from George Washington University and is a former NASA Datanaut, a program that allows participants to engage with NASA data to develop new products and processes. She is also a STEM correspondent on the Emmy-nominated CBS science series Mission Unstoppable. The series, hosted by Miranda Cosgrove, features female innovators in various science-related careers.
Although her resume is quite impressive, O’Reilly truly understands the assignment. She recognizes the example she is setting for other young women of color and continues to show up for the culture.
In a now-viral December 5 tweet, she explained why she believes it’s important to represent her authentic self when she’s in the lab, an environment where there are few Black female examples.
“As a Black woman on a national science show, I intentionally wear braids and my curly Afro to normalize Black hair in stem. In this pic, I’m wearing cornrows to study plants being sent to space at NASA,” she wrote.
In a recent interview, O’Reilly told Yahoo Life that she hopes the simple act of wearing her natural hair in the lab will get people talking. “From a superficial level it doesn’t sound profound. But in this day and age in 2022, something as simple as me sharing a tweet of a picture with me in a lab wearing cornrows was a conversation starter,” she said. “I think people are realizing now more than ever, why this work is important, why showing up as a woman in STEM, just as myself is important. And if that inspires others I hope that it brings more women into the fold.”