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Monday, May 23, 2022

The other day, Ketan Mathavan was walking on campus with his research mentor. He saw the usual - a few students, some trees, a couple of birds. Then he spotted a four-foot-long dead log on the grass.

He told his mentor, "That looks like an alligator phallus."

His mentor's response: "You've been in the lab too long."

Mathavan, who is part of a UF research team that studies the American alligator, was designated one part for the study: the alligator phallus.

He is the first student at UF to study the male alligator's genitalia in such depth.

The data Mathavan collects help scientists learn more about the link between environmental toxins and birth defects.

He uses words like "histology" and "cellular morphology" in everyday conversation, which mean nothing to most of his friends.

Now, the scientist-in-the-making eagerly shares with others his fascination for this research project. He can talk about the alligator phallus for hours.

But it wasn't always that way for Mathavan.

He confessed that at first he felt embarrassed about describing his area of research to others.

"But now I take a lot of pride into what I do," he said. "People sometimes bring it up as a joke, but I don't get mad."

Indeed, his friends often joke with Mathavan about his area of expertise.

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"They take some cracks on me, like here is the penis guy," he said.

This was the first time after several interiews that Mathavan used the word penis - Mathavan prefers to call it the phallus.

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Slideshow: UF student researches the alligator phallus

Student Success

The 20-year-old always knew he wanted to research. He wondered how and why things happened, and he knew scientific research could deliver answers.

But Mathavan never expected he would become the first student at UF to study the alligator's phallus in such depth that his collected data will be included in research papers.

Professor Louis Guillette, head of the alligator research team at UF, said few papers exist about the alligator's phallus structure.

"Only basic papers [were] written in the 1930s, but nothing like the descriptions Ketan has been able to do," Guillette said.

Guillette's earlier research revealed that lake contaminants led to birth defects in the male alligator's sexual organ. Since the alligator and human reproductive systems are very similar, Guillette's team of undergraduate and graduate students use alligators to study whether genital abnormalities among young boys are caused by pollutants in the environment.

Walking into Mathavan's peanut-sized lab room, located on the fifth floor of Bartram Hall, is a claustrophobic experience. But labeled bottles, beakers and flasks, all perfectly aligned, are a quick distraction. Mathavan handles his slides and equipment with the same delicacy a mother holds a newborn.

"The information I am collecting right now sets the baseline for what is normal in the phallus," he said. "It can be used to compare it to the abnormal phalluses' physiology."

The Findings

About 16 years ago, a group of scientists, including professor Guillette, discovered that lake contaminants led to birth defects in the alligator's sexual organ.

Male alligators, like human men, are supposed to produce testosterone. The female alligators should produce estrogen.

However, the abnormal alligators that have been found in contaminated lakes produce both estrogen and testosterone. This causes an unusual development, in which baby alligators' reproductive systems don't know whether to grow a clitoris or a penis. Some end up growing a penis, but one that's too small for reproductive use. Part of the investigation is to find the origin of these birth defects.

Guillette said alligators are used as models because of the similarities between the human and alligator reproductive systems. So Guillette's findings have not only raised concerns about the health of Florida's wetlands but about human health.

Learning more about why these changes have occurred in alligators can help scientists find out if genital abnormalities among infant boys are related to environmental contaminants, Guillette said.

The Alligator Team

Originally, Mathavan's first assignment was to reconstruct the alligator's ovary structure.

His program mentor, Brandon Moore, decided it would be better to start him off with a simpler structure - the phallus. But the research team has discovered a complexity in the phallus structure they did not expect, explained Moore, a graduate student in zoology.

Like some of his peers in the program, Guillette said that Mathavan walked in not knowing much about alligator research, so when he discovered something new he experienced the "aha!" moment.

"Ketan has shown an infectious enthusiasm for learning and doing things that would lead to discovery, " Guillette said.

It is rare in the science field for undergraduate students to take part in big research projects.

The UF-Howard Hughes Group Advantaged Training of Research Program, funded with a $1 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, pairs undergraduates with graduate students, giving them the chance to experience first-hand what it means to be a scientist.

"Research has completely changed my life," Mathavan said. "Everything about research is great: the social aspect, the intellectual aspect."

He was paired with Moore, 37, who primarily studies ovary development in alligators. Moore has guided Mathavan on how to work with phallus tissues.

Research Process

Some months back, a group of about eight, including Mathavan and Moore, drove an airboat to Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge at night. A flashlight was used to spot the kings of the swamp, then they were wrestled by the neck and there mouths were rubber-banded.

Mathavan explained the alligators don't put up a long fight because they are cold-blooded. After being out of the water for a bit, they need the sun to break down the lactic acid that builds in their body. At night, the breakdown process takes longer, so the alligators tire quicker.

Their immobilization helps the scientists get blood samples, take measurements and identify their sex - the most difficult task. The female and male alligators' genitalia look incredibly similar. The only difference? The female's clitoris is smaller and pinkish, while the male's phallus is slightly larger and purplish.

Once in the lab, technicians put the alligators to sleep with an injection and approved graduate students dissect them. The young researcher is then handed the phallus tissue. First, he dries out the tissue in alcohol and then dips it in wax, freezing it from the inside out. The wax block is then sliced into ultra-thin sections that are placed on glass slides for microscopic examination. Under the microscope, the 3-D slides look like a map with aqua and purple lines. The slides serve as hard copy of his results because they show the phallus' inner structure.

Mathavan views the slides with the same pride most guys express staring at their car after a good wax. When he removed his glasses to analyze the call and tissue patterns through the lenses, his eyes lit up.

"I feel a strong desire to finish my project," he said. "It's become my own."

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