Professor pursues life-long passion in psychology

At the age of 14, Christiane Brems read a book on human behavior and fell in love with psychology.

These days, she directs UAA’s new graduate program in psychology and is co-director of Behavioral Health and Research Services.

When she was 11 her family went visit an uncle in Canada, and she immediately knew she wanted to move to North America from her home in the upper Rhine Valley of Germany.

“I fell in love with the wide open spaces, the remoteness of it all,” she said.

At 19, she moved by herself to America to start school at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

Alone in a foreign country, she didn’t fit in so easily in college. She doesn’t remember it fondly, but looks on it as a learning experience, a hallmark of her nature.

“It was not the best year of my life,” she said, “but, because it was a black college, it was an interesting cultural immersion experience.”

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She transferred to Oklahoma State University and worked odd jobs, using loans to finance her education in psychology. She earned her bachelor’s degree at 21 and her master’s two years later. Her doctorate was conferred in July 1987.

After obtaining her doctorate, she married Mark Johnson, who also held a doctorate in psychology. The two moved to Alaska in May 1990.

Tenured at UAA by the time she was 31, she became the driving force on many clinical and research based projects.

She said she’s especially proud of the Behavioral Health Research and Services program at UAA, which she developed with her husband. The mission of BHRS is to improve the mental and physical health of all Alaskans through research, evaluation and training. It’s a joint program in all aspects, with Brems and Johnson sharing both an office and the responsibilities of managing staff and clients.

Her curriculum vitae is 32 pages long, and she has written six books and more than 75 peer-reviewed publications. She is one of only three Alaskans certified in clinical psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Currently, Brems is working on is the first-ever joint Ph.D. program in Alaska, partnering UAA with the UAF. The focus of the program is rural, cultural and indigenous psychology.

“Its aim is to marry clinical and community needs with a research focus,” she said. “The unique problems of Alaska call for unique training and solutions to be implemented to solve them.”

Brems is quick to credit others on their contributions, from staff to the board of regents.

“The positive synergy that has come out of both university faculties working together is the reason for the program existing and its success,” she said.

The array of emotional and interpersonal skills that she enjoys has helped Brems to be resilient through some difficult times.

“Because I am a very private person by nature, it is not easy to reveal things about me that are private, like the fact that I have survived being diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 36,” she said. “On Dec. 1, it will be the eighth anniversary since I was diagnosed – I’ve had some tough experiences, both professionally and personally.”

Brems’ colleagues speak very highly of her.

“Her passion, her enthusiasm, her willingness to take the time to resolve any problem that’s needed – those are the qualities that drew me, and draws others to her,” said Anissa Hauser, UAA Ph.D. program coordinator. “I wanted to transition from my position at the governance office to her program as soon as I first worked with her on the submitting the Ph.D. program proposal. She’s that magnetic.”

John Petraitis, chair of the UAA psychology department, concurs.

“There were countless opportunities for the Ph.D. program to get derailed, but Brems came prepared with vision, evidence and diplomacy,” he said. “Without her, we would be without a Ph.D. program.”

Her husband said he admires the talent of his wife and colleague of almost 20 years.

“Her strength in this area is her ability to not only be a professional exemplar, but also be a model of personal strength, well-being and interpersonal skills,” he said.