Plastic lab waste from Rice becomes coral reef on land

Rice University
Office of Public Affairs / News & Media Relations


Katharine Shilcutt

Plastic lab waste from Rice becomes coral reef on land
Pipettes and packaging collected on campus make a statement at the Moody Center

HOUSTON – (April 8, 2019) – Second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr and senior Alex Rovner spent a semester collecting plastic waste from the dozens of scientific labs across the campus of Rice University. What they ended up with was more than enough to construct a massive coral reef inside the Moody Center for the Arts — much more.

Jones College senior Alex Rovner

Jones College senior Alex Rovner

“What you see here is probably about 30% of what we collected,” said Rovner, an environmental science major. “There was no way that we could use all of it.”

For the piece, titled “Not Coralated: Consumption and Conservation,” Howe-Kerr and Rovner created all manner of marine life, from spiny urchins and sea worms to sea turtles and 6-foot-tall mounds of coral, using pipettes, boxes and other disposable lab equipment made of the same plastic that often finds its way into oceans across the world.

A four-year study published in Science magazine recently found that coral reefs have become heavily contaminated with plastic, which clings to coral and can often abrade it, inviting in harmful bacteria and pathogens. The likelihood of disease, the researchers reported, increases from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic.

Rovner is taking three courses his senior year, while Howe-Kerr was preparing to head to the Moorea Coral Reef near Tahiti where she’s studying the role of viral infection in coral bleaching and disease. With what free time they could scrape together before she left, the former classmates who met two years ago in a course called Art and the Environment brainstormed a project in which they’d ask labs across campus to donate any plastic waste they would otherwise throw away.

Second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr

Second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr

“We thought it would be really cool if we could use all the lab waste that we create and make it into something meaningful,” Rovner said.

Working ceaselessly over spring break, the two filled an entire glass-walled room at the Moody Center with an ocean scene that asks viewers to consider the amount of plastic used — and discarded — on a daily basis.

“One of the fallacies I had growing up is that art is this thing in a museum that you go look at and costs a million dollars,” said Rovner, a self-proclaimed “super science-and-math guy” who’s headed to medical school next year. But classes like Art and the Environment and the friendships formed with his Rice colleagues showed him new ways to both view and create art.

“It’s definitely something I never thought I’d be doing at Rice,” Rovner said.

The Moody Center for the Arts is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit


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Moody Center for the Arts:

Jones College senior Alex Rovner

Alex Rovner (Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow)

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Second-year Ph.D. student Lauren Howe-Kerr

Lauren Howe-Kerr

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Rovner and Howe-Kerr created sea worms, anemones, starfish and other marine life from pipettes and plastic waste. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Not Coralated: Consumption and Conservation” close-up (Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow)

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,970 undergraduates and 2,934 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for quality of life and for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for happiest students by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.