Why this Black engineer makes a point of wearing braids in the lab: 'If you Google a scientist, I can promise you you're not going to get pictures of a Black woman with cornrows'

Fig O’Reilly says it is imperative for young Black girls to see people who look like them in the STEM field.(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for US-Ireland Alliance)
Fig O’Reilly says it is imperative for young Black girls to see people who look like them in the STEM field.(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for US-Ireland Alliance)

Fionnghuala "Fig" O'Reilly, 29, is used to being the "only."

From being the first Black woman to represent Ireland in the Miss Universe competition to being the only Black woman in her class to graduate with a systems engineering degree, perpetual "othering" is nothing new to O'Reilly.

But O'Reilly, who was born in the U.S. to an American mother and an Irish father, finds no solace in being the "first" or "only" in any capacity and is actively working to recruit and mentor Black women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"When doors open for you, it's important to hold doors open for others," she tells Yahoo Life.

Existing as an anomaly for so many years has made O'Reilly especially intentional about every decision she makes as a Black woman in STEM, including how she wears her hair.

"Representation is so impactful for the next generation, and I intentionally do make the effort to show up [as] myself in these spaces where we're not often seen at all," she says.

This passion for inclusion recently gained O'Reilly considerable attention on Twitter.

On Dec. 5, she shared a photo of herself rocking feed-in braids while working in a lab.

"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.

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The tweet received over 100,000 likes.

"I was surprised that this tweet went viral so quickly," she says.

Some users resonated with O'Reilly's post, with one sharing the moment they decided to rock their natural hair in professional settings.

"Honestly, this reason is what pushed me over the edge and made me decide to wear my natural hair at work. If people have an issue with it, that's on them. I'm just here to be me and do my job (and in the process, to normalize my ability to exist as me in these spaces)," shared one person.

Others commended the engineer for the post, thanking her for serving as much needed STEM representation for young Black girls.

"Mom of an adopted 8 year old black girl. I'm showing this to her! She gets so excited to see girls who "look like me" doing science and cool things. Thank you for posting!!," tweeted another user.

Of the viral moment, O'Reilly says she "was very glad to see that so many people were proud and happy and felt inspired. Those were the messages that meant so much to me, because it did reach so many."

Her championing of natural hair extends beyond the lab. O'Reilly is currently a correspondent on CBS's Mission Unstoppable with Miranda Cosgrove, a show that highlights women in various STEM careers.

"The goal of this show is to show women across various fields of STEM and what it looks like to work in their job and one thing that is important to us on the show is showcasing women of a variety of backgrounds. So I do intentionally show up as myself as I normally would with my hair in a wide array of natural hair styles, because that's how I show up in life," says O'Reilly.

Showing up as her most authentic self in any setting is nothing new to O'Reilly, who abandoned expectations to straighten her natural hair while competing for Miss Universe Ireland in 2019.

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"I was the first Black woman and first woman of color in general to represent Ireland at the Miss Universe pageant in 2019 and that win was historic because there's never been a woman of color to represent Ireland in a beauty pageant," she says. "That was a transformational year for me because it taught me so much about visually the impact that representation can have on young people and young girls specifically being just shown that it is OK to show up as yourself in your natural beauty. It doesn't take away from who you are and what you're trying to accomplish professionally and it should be something that is celebrated."

She says this dialogue is especially important as conversations about Black hair and beauty are often written off as vain trivialities.

"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 explains. "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."

As impactful as the recent dialogue inspired by her post has been, O'Reilly hopes that, at some point, conversations such as these won't even need to take place.

"I intentionally make the effort to show up in these spaces where we're not often seen at all. We're underrepresented in this field. If you Google a scientist, I can promise you, you're not going to get pictures of a Black woman with cornrows in her hair popping up," she says. "Right now, this is for our community."

O'Reilly knows firsthand just how important feeling seen and understood can be for your Black girls, explaining that her initial love for STEM was fostered among a community of people of color.

"I didn't even know what STEM was as a phrase or acronym. But there was a teacher that I had in high school, my freshman year and he really wanted me to apply to this summer academy at UC Berkeley for students of color that were inner city and from low income families," O'Reilly recalls.

"Growing up in a relatively food insecure house, I didn't have a lot of opportunities to access a program like this and so, you know, when my teacher told me about it, at 14, my first thought was 'absolutely not,'" says O'Reilly. "But I'm so glad that he pushed me to apply to this program. I wound up being accepted. And for the next three years I was exposed to nothing but STEM and other students of color who had similar backgrounds. And that was what inspired me to become an engineer to begin with."

After high school, O'Reilly went on to pursue engineering at George Washington University.

"[I was] mostly surrounded by white young men, and then also having to navigate microaggressions where I would hear comments about women or something like my hair. I remember being told more than once I'm 'blocking' someone's view with my hair because I had it in a curly afro," she explains.

She also was often presumed to be less capable than her male classmates.

"It was difficult to socially navigate that space. Engineers often work in group projects. [And] I started noticing a trend. I was given all the secretarial tasks, group project after group project, I would get, 'You can make the PowerPoint,' while everyone else is doing the harder work,'" she says.

Her experience as a Black woman in STEM is far from an isolated event.

"Women make up 15% of engineering jobs; that's women in general. Black people make up 5% of all engineering jobs," says O'Reilly, referring to a 2021 Pew research study on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity in STEM.

Now, she's determined to change those numbers.

"This year I founded a startup called Space to Reach, and our mission is to bridge the tech industry with qualified Black and brown women who work in STEM to help them get job opportunities and mentorship and just have a community where you can exist and talk about the things that you need in order to succeed in your role and to have a great career," says O'Reilly. "In order to retain women, we have to make these spaces more inclusive. We have to create an industry that isn't just tolerant of us in these spaces."

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