Carnegie Mellon University

Christi Danner, administrative assistant at the Neuroscience Institute

April 29, 2020

Danner Builds Connections at Neuroscience Institute

By Caroline Sheedy

A big part of Christi Danner’s job is being social. Today, it’s being social at a distance.  

As administrative assistant for the Neuroscience Institute, Danner typically greets faculty, researchers, staff and students when they enter the office in the Mellon Institute. She chats with visitors throughout the day, and has formed relationships with many in the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh neuroscience community during her two years on the job. Now, working from home, she is the Neuroscience Institute’s virtual receptionist via Zoom. 

“I keep the Zoom meeting open any time I’m at work,” Danner said. “There are a lot of people who I talk with on a daily basis and I didn’t want to lose that connection. I want to be available in the same way.” 

In addition to working full-time, Danner is a part-time student in the School of Design and will earn her master’s degree in design this semester. She’s incorporating her virtual receptionist idea into a class project for Prototyping for Interaction Design. 

Assistant Teaching Professor Andrew Twigg asked his students to think about how to use iterative testing to improve their prototype.

“From what I understand about what Christi does, this class is going to afford her an opportunity to think about the function of her role and make space for improving how it can be carried out,” Twigg said. “That’s what we are always trying to do with design — make things better.”

Danner’s project aims to build community in the Neuroscience Institute during the COVID-19 crisis, a goal Neuroscience Institute Director Barbara Shinn-Cunningham shares.

“We are using technology creatively to promote a sense of community and disseminate information. Knowing that Christi’s friendly face is just a click away gives our students, staff and faculty a sense of connection and control at a time when that can be otherwise hard to find,” Shinn-Cunningham said.

The reception desk isn’t the only virtual experience being offered by the Neuroscience Institute. Shinn-Cunningham holds virtual office hours twice a week, and just as they do every Thursday, staff members host a weekly tea. Attendees bring their own snacks and drinks, log on to Danner’s Zoom room and talk about whatever personal or professional topics are on their mind. At the first virtual tea, a mix of faculty, staff and graduate students, including Mellon College of Science Dean Rebecca Doerge, stopped by.

The most surprising thing to Danner has been how similar the virtual experience is to her usual routine.

“Talking to people this way feels almost like when they stop by my real desk. I see a lot of the same people, and have a lot of the same conversations,” she said.