Duke U. biology professor Kathleen Pryer’s ferns were born with a little Lady Gaga in them.
Pryer paid homage to the musician and pop icon Lady Gaga when she reclassified 19 species into a new genus—Gaga. Pryer noticed that these ferns were distinct from species within the Cheilanthes genus, in which they were originally classified. Realizing that the 19 ferns could not be categorized under another, already existing genus, Pryer created the Gaga genus, which was inspired by her admiration for Lady Gaga and her Born This Way Foundation, which seeks to empower victims of bullying and create a more accepting society.
“We need more human beings who are interested in making the world a kinder, better, braver place,” Pryer said. “She’s trying to give people the skills and the strength to go past the bullying…. That’s awesome. I don’t see myself naming a genus of ferns after Britney Spears or Madonna.”
Found in Arizona, Central and South America, Mexico and Texas, the Gaga genus includes two new species of ferns—Gaga monstraparva and Gaga germanotta. Monstraparva is the Latin translation for little monsters, the name given to Lady Gaga fans. The other species honors the singer directly—her birth name is Stefani Germanotta.
Pryer said Lady Gaga has long been an inspiration because she uses her stardom to “push agendas” that empower others. In addition to the Born This Way Foundation, Lady Gaga launched the Body Revolution to encourage fans not to be ashamed of their image after the media criticized Gaga for her weight gain.
“It’s a way of giving her a gift from the scientific community and saying, ‘Even geeks listen to your music and feel empowered by your message—keep doing what you’re doing,’” Pryer said.
Lady Gaga’s outfit for her performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards, moreover, made the new genus’ namesake more appropriate, Pryer added. Made by Armani Prive, the costume was green, heart-shaped and, to Pryer, resembled a gametophyte—the multicellular phase of plants that occurs during the ferns’ reproductive stage.
“When she came out of that silo wearing that costume, it just spoke to me,” Pryer said. “It was like, ‘Good god! For all the world, that was a beautiful gametophyte.’”
Many artists have had scientific discoveries named after them. In January, for instance, the singer Beyonce became the namesake of a horsefly with a striking gold behind, deemed “bootylicious” by its discoverer Bryan Lessard, a researcher for the Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
To top it all off, when Pryer’s lab looked at the DNA sequence of the ferns, they found that one gene had the sequence Guanine-Adenine-Guanine-Adenine lined up, which, when abbreviated, is GAGA.
Pryer had not thought of looking at the DNA sequence until she talked to Karl Bates, director of research communications, over lunch about the fern discovery. Bates said it would be funny if she looked at the DNA sequence and saw GAGA lined up, so Pryer and her lab set to work to see if Gaga was, in fact, in the ferns’ DNA. The study’s acknowledgement section now thanks Bates for “stating the obvious.”
After seeing the connections to the namesake, Pryer wanted to make sure she cleared it with the person behind the inspiration. She did not want the name to be released without Lady Gaga formally “blessing” the name. She got help in this task from Cathy Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of interdisciplinary studies and Ruth F. Devarney professor of English.
Davidson is co-director of the annual Digital Media and Learning Competition run by the MacArthur Foundation, which awards money to projects that explore how digital media affect the lives of young people. She worked with Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter, when the MacArthur Foundation chose to give a $500,000 grant to the Born This Way Foundation in February. Using her connection with the MacArthur Foundation, Davidson contacted Carter about the Lady Gaga-inspired genus name and received a response in 19 minutes.
“Sounds great :),” Carter wrote in the email.
Duke senior Anne Johnson, who has worked in Pryer’s lab since her sophomore year, said she liked the reasoning behind the genus name choice and was excited as a Lady Gaga fan.
Davidson noted that the name choice not only honors Lady Gaga’s work, but also shines light on the scientific community and their contributions.
“It shows that the world of science, art, university and pop culture is all continuous—I love that,” she said. “I don’t like when the world gets divided up into little boxes.”
Pryer also noted that the excitement surrounding the Gaga genus shows that scientists are approachable and enjoy having fun.
“I hope people will see scientists aren’t just lab-coated, boring people—we live in the same world,” Pryer said. “We owe it to the community at large to explain what we do… and maybe there are little monsters who were born this way to be fern biologists.”