Arts & Sciences

St. Louis Area Brain Bee winners reflect on experience

2020 SLABB winner Sriharsha Gonuguntla (left) with Erik Herzog (right) in 2020

St. Louis Area Brain Bee 2020 and 2021 winners Sriharsha Gonuguntla and Rohan Rao, respectively, reflect on how the regional and national competitions influenced their interest in neurobiology.

The event that high school students across the St. Louis metropolitan area get excited for each year, theSt. Louis Area Brain Bee (SLABB) competition, took place online on March 27, 2021. Rohan Rao, a junior at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri, is the 2021 SLABB winner.

SLABB is an opportunity for students to test their neuroscience knowledge. A written exam identifies the top ten competitors. In the oral portion of the competition, the ten students answer questions about the nervous system. To prepare, the students study Brain Facts, a book produced by the Society for Neuroscience.

This year was the 11th year that Erik Herzog, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, organized and moderated the event with WashU student coordinators Jake Joseph and Alicia Yang and the Institute for School Partnership. The event was held online for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The winner is awarded a summer research fellowship at WashU and competes in the National Brain Bee competition. Because the pandemic canceled the 2020 national competition, 2020 SLABB winner Sriharsha Gonuguntla, a senior at Marquette High School who will be attending WashU in the fall, also participated in this year’s National Brain Bee competition.

SLABB sparks a neuroscience interest

2021 SLABB winner Rohan Rao

This year, Rao also competed in the 2020/2021 National Brain Bee Competition, held online on April 10 and 11.

2021 SLABB winner Rohan Rao competed in the SLABB competition every year since he started high school. In 9th grade, Rao came in 12th place; in 10th grade, 10th place. This year, he won.

“I enjoy learning about how the brain works and how different disorders can affect people’s lives, and most importantly, how to treat these disorders as this has applications to improve lives for millions of people worldwide,” said Rao.

The national competition tests a wide range of topics and involves a wet lab practical, imaging lab practical, patient diagnosis, and clinical application questions. Rao worked with Dr. Krikor Dikranian, professor of anatomy in neuroscience at the Washington University School of Medicine, to prepare for the new content.

“The Clinical Applications section was the toughest part in terms of difficulty, but I learned a lot of new things from getting to participate,” recalled Rao, who came in 8th place in the national competition.

Rao’s interest in neuroscience started because of his positive experience competing in SLABB as a freshman in high school. And each time he participated in the competition, he would dive deeper into the topic.

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