Jackie Takacs started college thinking she would be a teacher. And for 25 years she has been one—just not quite in the way she envisioned. Takacs is a senior watershed specialist with University of Maryland Extension–Sea Grant program. Her teaching ranges from helping community members install rain gardens and cisterns to working with local governments to secure funding for stormwater management projects.
“It has been my first job, and my only job, and the job I’ll retire from,” said Takacs.
The job’s focus has changed over time. But one thing that hasn’t, she said, is the need for Extension’s services. These can range from helping with outdoor plantings that reduce flooding to more unusual tasks like removing snakes from a resident’s shoreline protection. Extension specialists often describe themselves as the gears that start things moving—they can help secure grants for tree-planting projects, negotiate with construction engineers about where to put rain gardens, or facilitate dialogue in a community.
“That’s the hardest thing in Extension, just being distracted by a gazillion different things that come up,” she said. “It’s really hard to say no. We don’t push people off. We’re the people that folks get pushed to.”
Growing up as one of seven children on Long Island, Takacs got used to change. She moved to Salisbury, Maryland, her senior year in high school when her father opened a facility for a large defense contractor. Already planning to attend University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) as a soccer recruit with plans to be a teacher, Takacs relished being near home and the water.
She took a job to help pay for school at The Red Roost restaurant and began tending to their fish ponds. Realizing she loved it, Takacs sought out Reginald Harrell, a UMD professor and Extension specialist who was then running an aquaculture program.
“I walked into Reggie’s office and essentially said, ‘How have you lived without me?’ and he gave me a summer job,” Takacs recalled. The position was at what is now called the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory, where she would eventually work on striped bass and oysters.
She earned her BS with an emphasis on marine biology from UMCP in 1991, and her MS in marine, estuarine, and environmental science in 1995. From there, Takacs worked as the marine specialist for Extension at the Chesapeake Biological Lab. She also developed and taught two environmental courses at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Working with Maryland Sea Grant’s Assistant Director of Education J. Adam Frederick, Takacs co-created Aquaculture in Action to train educators how to engage students using aquaculture.
In 2009, she became the senior member of a team that includes five watershed specialists who cover different regions in the state. She oversees Southern Maryland, running stormwater management workshops focusing on how citizens can install their own rain barrels, cisterns, and rain gardens to minimize the rainwater running off their property.
Along with her colleagues, Takacs also runs Watershed Stewards Academies throughout the state. These 12- to 18-month programs train volunteers to assist their local communities with stormwater and pollution issues through more than 40 hours of instruction and a capstone project. (For more on the WSA, see “Cleaning up Stormwater Pollution One Town at a Time,” Chesapeake Quarterly, May 2017.)
Takacs worked closely with Calvert and St. Mary’s counties to create and support a full-time county watershed specialist position, which Nicole Basenback filled. In 2020, Takacs and Basenback began a virtual Watershed Stewards Academy in Calvert County. They mailed at-home lab kits to participants and used web-based sessions to teach what is typically a hands-on, outdoor class. The online format allowed part-time residents to participate, Takacs said.
“I truly believe in hands on,” she said. “If you show people how to do it, and give them the resources and confidence, they will be able to do it themselves.