St. Louis Area Brain Bee winners reflect on experience 

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, the St. 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 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. 

“I enjoy learning about how the brain works and how different disorders can affect people's lives,” said 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

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.

When asked where he hopes his interest in neuroscience takes him in the future, Rao said, “I plan on becoming a doctor, and learning about neuroscience has made me even more passionate about pursuing this field.”

This summer, Rao will have the opportunity to explore his neuroscience interest in the Herzog lab. 

"“I am eagerly looking forward to working virtually with Dr. Herzog’s neuroscience lab this summer for the research fellowship I earned from winning SLABB," said Rao. 

Participating in competitions is not new for Rao. In middle school, he participated in the National Geographic Bee as the 2017 Missouri state champion and the National Spelling Bee in 8th grade. The National Brain Bee was Rao’s 3rd national competition. 

“It was a great experience to get to compete on a national level again and get to place in the top ten,” said Rao proudly. 

Incoming WashU student set to focus on neurobiology

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

Sriharsha Gonuguntla won SLABB in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the national competition and forced him to participate in his research internship in Erik Herzog’s lab remotely. Yet, despite the less-than-ideal situation, Gonuguntla found the opportunity impactful. 

“Working in Dr. Herzog’s lab was rewarding as it opened my eyes to research and has influenced my decision to go to WashU and major in biology,” recalled Gonuguntla.

Gonuguntla knew Akhil Kondepudi, the 2018 SLABB winner who also won the national competition. Now it was his turn to push his limits. 

“SLABB was a way to apply and advance my interest in neuroscience,” said Gonuguntla.

“SLABB was a way to apply and advance my interest in neuroscience,” said Gonuguntla.

After the pandemic canceled the 2020 National Brain Bee competition, Gonuguntla participated this year. He placed 8th in the Nation.

“The most challenging part was that there was a lot more content. You have to pull information from many sources and apply it. Because you don’t learn any of this content in school, you have to learn on your own,” explained Gonuguntla.

He is referring to the two books and neuroanatomy sources he read, the diseases he learned about, and the MRIs he now knows how to examine. Gonuguntla also worked with Dr. Krikor Dikranian to master this content. 

“It was challenging but also rewarding. I learned a lot, and it solidified my interest in neuroscience.”

“I have always been interested in science, but I got more interested in neuroscience when my great-grandfather got Alzheimer’s Disease. And participating in the Brain Bee ignited that interest,” explained Gonuguntla.

Gonuguntla plans to pursue the neuroscience track within the biology major at WashU. 

Want to know more about SLAAB? Dr. Herzog sat down with the Institute for School Partnership in 2019 to discuss the St. Louis Brain Bee competition. Watch the video here