A Window to the World

As a geographer and ethnographer, Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly explores how lack of water and sanitation impact rural and urban communities in India.

    Written by Morgan Knobloch '20
  • Jun. 29, 2020
    4 min read

From an early age, Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly found herself captivated by dreams of places she had yet to discover. Fascinated by maps and inspired by the glimpse of the world they provided, O’Reilly decided to pursue her love for geography in graduate school.

“I’ve always loved maps because they provide a wider window to the world and help us visualize places we’ve never been, but I didn’t realize that love would lead me to study geography until later in life,” O’Reilly said. “After taking a world regional geography class, I was hooked. Now, I teach that same course, known as Geography of the Global Village, at Texas A&M University.”

Before planting her roots at Texas A&M in 2006, O’Reilly continued her studies of geography in Alabama, Iowa and Kentucky. She even spent a few years teaching English in Taiwan and the Czech Republic before learning Hindi so that she could begin research in India.

“I love Texas A&M’s Department of Geography and the growing cohort of faculty in my subfield,” O’Reilly said. “In addition to my incredible colleagues, Texas A&M has provided grants and funding that raise the profile of my research. I am an independent researcher, but so many others help make my work possible!”

O’Reilly’s work represents the realm of human-environment geography, or the study of how human activity affects the environment, and in turn, how the environment affects human activity. “Humans interact with the natural environment in ways they can and can’t control, and at an individual level, these interactions can affect something as basic as access to water and a toilet,” O’Reilly said. “My research is particularly focused on how gender inequality and the immediate physical environment impact access to these two resources in India."

Providing communities with the resources necessary to promote good health ultimately leads to a better life.

As a human geographer, O’Reilly aims to identify what enables the successful implementation of water and sanitation policies among the people of rural and urban India. By interviewing women and girls, her work has helped raise awareness of sanitation issues that impact the health and security of women and young girls.

“Access to adequate sanitation is lacking for many women and girls in the areas of India that I study,” O’Reilly said. “Men and women have different sanitation needs, and it is important to understand these needs so we can provide solutions to address public health concerns and improve the quality of life for women and girls who do not have access to safe sanitation.”  

In slums, shared toilets exist for women, but using them may require entering a dark, unlocked room that has no water supply. Without access to adequate sanitation, they experience physical and mental stress that O’Reilly calls “toilet insecurity.”

O’Reilly’s research has helped gain an understanding of women’s perspectives on sanitation issues like using community toilets to better inform policymakers. As a result, her work has highlighted women’s need for secure sanitation and contributed to the creation of new sanitation policies.

“Providing communities with the resources necessary to promote good health ultimately leads to a better life,” O’Reilly explained. “I hope that my research adds a little drop in the bucket toward helping the people whose stories have shaped my work.” 

Interested in learning how you can support researchers like Dr. O’Reilly through faculty fellowships? Contact Jay Roberts '05 at or (979) 862-4944 to learn more.

About Dr. Kathleen O'Reilly

Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly studies how the management of water resources and lack of access to sanitation impacts marginalized groups, particularly women, in rural and urban India. She has received multiple awards acknowledging her findings including a faculty fellowship from the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research and the Department of Geography. Fellowships support work like O’Reilly’s and can be established through the Texas A&M Foundation with a gift of $25,000 payable over five years.