Anthropology Professor Wins Top Prize from Environmental Journal

Dr. Heather O'Leary engaging citizen scientists in Delhi, India. Credit: Heather O'Leary.

Dr. Heather O’Leary engaging citizen scientists in Delhi, India. Credit: Heather O’Leary.

(April 24, 2019) – An article on water politics and citizen science by USF St. Petersburg Assistant Professor of Anthropology Heather O’Leary has won the 2018 competition from the academic journal Case Studies in the Environment (CSE), which awards a $2,000 prize for the best environmental case study.

In her piece, O’Leary uses water as a lens to demonstrate core challenges and opportunities for sustainable urban development in Delhi, India. She champions citizens to advance water management, science and technology, while evaluating projects for community engagement opportunities.

“As was the case in the first year of our prize competition, we were blessed this year with a large number of excellent contributions,” said Dr. Wil Burns, Editor-in-Chief of CSE. “Our prize winner, Heather O’Leary, demonstrated the great value of case studies, constructing a case focused on the critical role of citizens in water decision making in Delhi, and its implications for citizen participation in environmental decisions more broadly.”

O’Leary’s article, Pluralizing Science for Inclusive Water Governance: An Engaged Ethnographic Approach to WaSH Data Collection in Delhi, India, was published last year as part of a special issue focused on water science and collaboration. The article was selected by the CSE board of editors for its innovative approach to empowering citizens in co-designing research protocols and the benefits the approach could have in engaging marginalized communities in developing countries.

“What made this work so special is that I challenged social science researchers to become a solution to a double problem,” O’Leary said. “Beyond the physical and social reasons why water is allocated unequally to different households, research about marginalized people doesn’t necessarily solve things. Even when we, as scientists, try to do community engaged research, we sometimes replicate the structures that exclude citizens from the science making process.”

O’Leary added, “Instead of just studying marginalized people as objects, or inviting them to the table for outsider-led capacity-building, we must recognize the agency and talents of everyday people as experts of a different specialty. By collaborating throughout several stages of a project, we actually learn more about the nuances of the problem and the scope for locally-led practical solutions.”

Credit: Sean Garcia

O’Leary joined USFSP as a faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (ISS) program in 2019. Her research interests range from water politics to women’s rights to urbanization, but all revolve around combining interdisciplinary research to empower people in impoverished communities.

“It’s really tremendous to be at a university that encourages me to publish outside of my discipline,” O’Leary said. “ISS recognizes that we need many different social science tools in order to address some of the world’s big problems, like poverty, water and gender disparities.”

For more than a decade, O’Leary has performed ethnographic research in Hindi in India, where she worked with families in tenements and illegal slum communities as a Wenner-Gren and Fulbright Fellow.

“I was there to study water and how women have become a part of the infrastructure, how people pick up where the pipes leave off. That included studying ways in which transnational politics about water and the environment were being played out within communities and within families.” O’Leary said.

She has also served as a scientific reviewer for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as well as participating in a water security task force for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Case Studies in the Environment is a peer-reviewed academic journal that aims to inform faculty, students, researchers, educators, professionals and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies. It is published by the University of California Press.