Fionnghuala O’Reilly, 26, is the first woman of color to win her title — and she's using it to inspire young girls interested in STEM fields

By Rachel DeSantis
December 05, 2019 05:06 PM
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Credit: Fionnghuala O'Reilly/Instagram

When Miss Universe Ireland Fionnghuala O’Reilly struts her stuff at the annual Miss Universe pageant on Sunday, she’ll be using her platform for more than just a night of glitz and glamour.

O’Reilly, 26, may be a beauty queen, but she’s got the brains to back it up, and has set herself apart from her fellow competitors by establishing quite an impressive day job: she works for NASA.

O’Reilly, who goes by Fig, is a member of NASA’s Datanaut program within the space agency’s Open Innovation program, and also works remotely out of Dublin as the executive director of the NASA Space Apps Challenge, which hosts an international hackathon each year.

“Genuinely, I thought it was something that you have to be a genius to do,” she tells PEOPLE of securing her Datanauts gig in January 2018. “I’d never seen anyone that looks like me doing a job like this, and if there were people that looked like me doing a job like this, you didn’t see it often.”

Fionnghuala O’Reilly
| Credit: Fionnghuala O'Reilly/Instagram

O’Reilly says her interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) stretches back to her days as a kid, when her favorite subjects in school were math and science.

Though she initially dreamed of becoming a paleontologist, she was captivated by the world of engineering after spending her childhood summers taking part in the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkeley.

“I think as a young girl I knew that engineers made things, but I didn’t know what that process looked like,” she says. “And it was the first time that I got to experience what it really meant to work in that kind of field, and so I absolutely knew when I was going to university [at George Washington University] that that is what I wanted to study.”

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With this in mind, she’s dedicated her pageant platform to making sure young girls know what options are available to them — something she pushes with her #ReachForTheStars social media campaign.

As part of her efforts, O’Reilly has even teamed up with the organization Girls Who Code to bring a group of young girls on a pair of trips to NASA to check out the Mars InSight Lander launch and landing.

Fionnghuala O’Reilly
| Credit: Fionnghuala O'Reilly/Instagram

Though she seems to have her balancing act down pat now, O’Reilly tells PEOPLE there were times she feared her two career paths (modeling and pageantry on one hand, and engineering on the other) might just be too different for her to be able to pursue both.

“In the beginning, I definitely kept both of the careers separate,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to bring my two passions together. … But the world is so different now. You can be a Renaissance woman and you can have multiple passions.”

She adds, “I absolutely love being able to work with NASA on these projects because it’s so amazing being able to work on something that is so much bigger than yourself. And on the other hand, as Miss Universe Ireland, I get to talk to young people and I get to share my story with young people, and I feel like I’m making a difference and I’m connecting with the youth.”

Meanwhile, barriers concerning her day job aren’t the only ones O’Reilly is breaking.

When she was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in August, O’Reilly — whose mother is African-American and whose father is Irish — became the first woman of color to win the title — something she says is indicative of the country’s evolving population.

“It’s very exciting and I think it marks a change,” she says. “It is the very first time in Ireland where there’s an entire generation of young people that have diverse backgrounds just like me, and it’s something that is new.”

Miss Universe airs live from Atlanta on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on FOX.