Fionnghuala O'Reilly is sitting in a colourful room.
Fionnghuala O'Reilly. Image: Julien Behal Photography

‘Modelling and pageantry prepared me for the work that I do in technology’

6 Mar 2020

Fionnghuala O’Reilly – Engineers Week ambassador, Miss Universe Ireland and NASA datanaut – discusses balancing her diverse roles and interests.

At various points of her life so far, Fionnghuala O’Reilly has wanted to be anything from a ballerina and a pilot to a truck driver and a paleontologist.

Where she ended up, however, is being Miss Universe Ireland and directing NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge. She is also the ambassador for this year’s Engineers Ireland STEPS Engineers Week.

Here, O’Reilly reflects on her varied career path to date and explains why she sees immense value in mentors.

‘Nothing valuable comes easy, so I apply a problem-solving attitude to everything that I do’

What’s your current role and what does it involve?

In addition to being Miss Universe Ireland, I am one of the directors of NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge.

Space Apps is the world’s largest hackathon and pitch competition, whose mission is to bring international communities together to create innovation to help solve the world’s most challenging Earth science and space-themed problems. In a nutshell, we bring students, engineers, scientists, coders and creators of all backgrounds together in a global effort to make the world a better and more innovative place.

One of my goals in 2020 is to bring Space Apps to Dublin. I am currently working to bring together the infrastructure needed to support this type of event in the city.

Lastly, I am an advocate for women and diversity in STEM. This year, I am the STEPS Engineers Week 2020 Ambassador. Engineers Week promotes engineering and the importance of the profession to children in Ireland. This year, over 900 events and activities are taking place across Ireland.

It looks like you juggle a lot of duties. Is that hard?

Hard wouldn’t be the right word. My job is challenging, but that’s what I most enjoy about it.

I feel that I am able to create real value in the world by working hard to affect change. Nothing valuable comes easy so I apply a problem-solving attitude to everything that I do.

Did you always want to work in engineering?

I have wanted to be a ballerina, pilot, truck driver, paleontologist, president, actor, engineer, teacher and soldier. I changed my mind often!

When I was 14, I attended a summer programme at UC Berkeley for three months, where I studied advanced science, technology, engineering and maths with other students that shared my interests.

Without this programme, which specifically targets under-represented communities, I would not have become an engineer. This programme demystified what it means to be an engineer and motivated me to enter the tech industry, which is why it is important for me to work with programmes that aim to support and encourage young people of all backgrounds in STEM.

Was it a straightforward path for you?

Not at all. I have a lot of different interests and have pursued a wide array of passions outside of technology while I concurrently worked to get my degree in systems engineering from the George Washington University.

I have been modelling professionally since I was 19 years old, when I was first signed to an agency in Milan. Fashion and tech don’t often cross over, but I’ve insisted on keeping a leg in both worlds because each passion means so much to me and I enjoy the work that I do across the board.

I’ve learned that it’s important to trust the path that you are on and continue to take steps to move forward even if the path that you find yourself on is unconventional.

Was there any one role model you had that impacted your decision to become an engineer?

There are key people that helped me realise that I had an interest in engineering. I had a maths teacher when I was 14 that insisted that I take my interest in and talents for maths more seriously.

As a teenager, I looked at careers in maths and science as boring. What did it even look like to be an engineer? Would I have to work in an office and sit behind a desk all day? That seemed like the last thing I would want to do because I yearned for adventure.

Though there are days where I spend time in my office working away on my computer – nowadays I find these quiet moments therapeutic – there are loads of days where I get to travel internationally and work with amazing and inspiring people.

I love to be able to use my voice as an advocate for women and diversity in STEM. Highlights include going behind the scenes of NASA rocket launches, meeting astronauts and working with government agencies abroad to teach coding skills to students.

What’s your favourite thing about your job (or jobs)?

My favourite thing about all of my jobs is that they are so exciting! My day-to-day schedule changes constantly and I am able to work on a lot of projects at once.

I am the type of person that stays motivated by keeping busy. I have worked very hard to learn how to balance my schedule and juggle multiple projects at once.

Do your various roles work well together in terms of overlapping skills or in any ways that surprised you?

Modelling and pageantry have prepared me for the work that I do in technology. As a model, you are constantly meeting new people, attending castings and balancing a busy schedule that could change at any moment.

Flexibility, organisation, attention to detail and professionalism are all skills that overlap across the industries that I work in.

If you could tell your younger self – just starting out on her engineering path – one thing, what would it be?

Find mentors early on to help support you and guide your career.

When I started my first job in information technology after university, I still was very nervous to be working in a formalised work setting. I was given a lot of responsibility that I wasn’t sure I was qualified to have – imposter syndrome is real.

Eventually, I found mentors to look up to as role models. It would’ve helped to have found them even earlier on. They taught me tips and tricks on being confident in my abilities, being a self-starter and rising to challenges.

If you are given a lot of responsibility, show others what you are capable of by running with the opportunity you are given.

Do you have any resources you use that you’d recommend?

I subscribe to and recommend The Memo, which is a tight edit of Forbes’ trends across entrepreneurship, tech, sustainability and more, sent weekly via email.

I like to keep up on global trends in business and technology, and The Memo keeps me up to date on current events and trending topics.

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