Mr. Cokeley: Miles away from home

Written by Lana Li, Editor in Chief, The Banner. Previously published in the September/October 2011 issue of The Banner. Raider Robotix enslaves Mr. Cokeley as Head Coach.

Mr. Cokeley always yearns to go home.

He began exploring different ecosystems decades ago and the hobby has developed into a passion and lifelong pursuit. He has traveled to all of the states as well as dozens of places around the world.

But there is only one place to which Cokeley feels he belongs.

“I feel at home in the jungle,” he said. “The wilderness provides a very new and different feeling.”

Because of its warmth and high biotic diversity, the rainforest tops Cokeley’s list of favorite ecosystems.

Cokeley started camping and traveling when he was a little kid. He became interested in traveling in his teens.

“I was into nature and understanding it,” said Cokeley. “I found that many biological connections cross over into all aspects of life.”

Cokeley in Costa Rica. Click to enlarge.

Mr. Cokeley inspects a boa constrictor in the La Selva field station in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Wayne Cokeley.

It was college, however, that determined the path of his life. In courses like zoologyand ecology, Cokeley found that he absorbed information not because he wanted to maintain his GPA but because he was fascinated by his studies.

He realized that he never wanted this fascination to fade. He decided to become a high school biology teacher so that he could encourage the same enthusiasm in his students and so that he would be able to spend the long summer breaks traveling to very different places of the world.

“I grew up in Middlesex County, New Jersey,” Cokeley said. “All these trips are an opportunity to see and learn something new every time. You get to see a whole new way of what people believe.”

Teachers also receive lots of research grant opportunities. Cokeley has never been turned down from a grant. He believes that it is because in his applications, he always says that in addition to his experience and willingness to help research, he can repair a broken car. He has received generous grants from the Earthwatch Institute, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

In many of the communities he has visited abroad, people lived entirely different lifestyles. Many places had limited water and no hot water or air conditioning, let alone the latest technological and scientific equipment.

“People [scientists] do amazing things with limited resources,” said Cokeley.

To help out the local people, Cokeley likes to bring school supplies, clothing and soccer balls with him on his trips.

“It means a lot more to them than it does to us,” he said. Oftentimes, a partnership formed between the village people and researchers. The scientists would persuade the local people to become more involved in conservation and in making the wildlife valuable to them.

Cokeley has studied the effects of Grevy zebra herds on vegetation, examined bees in Brazil, conducted a statistical analysis on rubber tree seeds and has worked long days in the middle of nowhere.

“A lot of people haven’t seen the things I’ve seen,” he said.

Over the summer, Cokeley drove to Montana and Wyoming from New Jersey to dig up fossils. He found fossils of sea life and dinosaur bones and submitted them to the Trenton State Museum.

Digging fossils brings back warm memories for Cokeley, as some of his first dates with Mrs. Cokeley were spent collecting them.

Although Mrs. Cokeley does not share the same passion as her husband, she always supports Mr. Cokeley’s journeys and endeavors.

“My wife’s happy to see me go every time,” joked Cokeley. On a more serious note, he added, “She knows I need to do it because it keeps me sane.”

Cokeley believes that everyone needs a home away from home. For him, it’s the wilderness. Perhaps the best part about calling the jungle home is that Cokeley can find the same comfort in multiple places; there are about 700 jungles in the world.

“When he talks about his travels around the world, he gives me so much inspiration,” said Harsha Seelam ’12, one of Cokeley’s AP Biology students. “He seems so full of experience and wisdom that you can’t help but admire him.”

“Students get all starry-eyed when I tell them these stories, but you guys can do the same thing,” said Cokeley. “It’s an amazing place out there.”

Though Cokeley will not be returning home to a jungle for a while, he will always crave the wet soil, humidity and rich wildlife of the rainforest. Sometimes, he even misses the mosquito bites.

It’s the strangest places we call home.

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