Wearing Many Hats as a Foreign Service RMLS

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Serve your country, practice medical laboratory science and see the world.

Growing up—or even in university—if you would have told me I’d have the career that I have now, I would have called you crazy. Never did I ever imagine that I would be working internationally. It still seems like dream that I am able to serve my country, practice my profession and travel.

What Is This Career?

As a  Regional Medical Laboratory Scientist (RMLS), I am part of the team responsible for the Department of State’s medical and safety policies. I provide a range of medical services, including management of Health Unit laboratory operations, supervision of subordinate staff and the performance of the following functions:

  • Perform Laboratory Testing: Perform testing, collect blood and perform on-call duty.
  • Manage Laboratory and Supervise Local Staff:Manage laboratory, oversee send-out testing, perform cost analysis, write OSHA safety plan, supervise laboratory staff and conduct evaluations.
  • Train Medical and Local Staff:Teach staff how to perform tests and how to perform sanitation inspections, present food safety classes and instruct on specimen collection.
  • Ensure Quality:Assess local diagnostic testing facilities and blood banks, assess competency of health unit staff, monitor quality control programs, maintain U.S. standards, review proficiency testing program and arrange for continuing education.
  • Perform Regional Duties:Visit regional posts, liaise for the health unit with local laboratories, advise local laboratory professionals and regional posts, assist with hiring, search for a means of reliable testing and collaborate with other organizations (i.e. the CDC).
  • Address Environmental Issues:Conduct sanitation inspections, conduct water testing for fecal contamination and designate laboratories for biological waste disposal.

The duties and responsibilities of a RMLS cover a wide range. I have to wear many hats. I am basically part scientist, manager, trainer, assessor and inspector.

Getting Into This Career

While attending the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, my professors always stressed the importance of professionalism. Part of the grand scheme of professionalism was (is) to be involved in the profession by becoming a member of a professional organization. So, after considering the various clinical laboratory organizations, I joined ASCLS and later ASCP as well.

“Foreign diplomacy gets all the headlines, but everyday across the globe, my colleagues and I engage in medical diplomacy.”

Through ASCLS, I was invited to travel abroad to visit laboratories with People To People. While in Russia, Egypt, China and South Africa I learned how laboratory medicine is practiced in those countries. During one of the excursions, I met someone working for the State Department as an RMLS. A short conversation quickly made me realize that a career with the State Department was a good fit for me. After finishing my Master’s degree, I applied and was accepted. Now, I’m a member of the Foreign Service, and my work environment went from window-less rooms to the world stage.

It’s true what people say, “Good networking creates great opportunities for different career paths.”

The Challenges

As with any career, there are challenges with being in the Foreign Service. The travel can be stressful because of airport delays, missed connecting flights, lost luggage, waiting for luggage, jet lag and getting stuck in traffic. At times, I have waited in airports for over 18 hours for the next flight. I’ve even waited over three hours just for my bag to come out on the luggage belt. Thankfully, carrying a good book or an iPad can make some of this more tolerable.

The hours can be another challenge. You are expected to be on-call 24/7 and can be called in on weekends, but this is not much different than what is expected of most people working in a hospital already. At least, it was what I expected years ago.

Another challenge is logistics. Practicing in countries with limited resources can be a new experience for a lot of people. Overnight delivery from UPS or FedEx is not an option everywhere on the planet. Acquiring certain supplies, especially ones requiring cold storage, may not be feasible. Also, you might be able to get an item, but only after long delays in shipments.

Security is probably a challenge that is on everyone’s mind, especially given the current global climate. Worldwide availability means you are willing to go anywhere and everywhere. Some of these places may not be secure, because of local conflicts like the ones in Iraq or Pakistan that occupy a lot of airtime on the news. There are also natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal or infectious disease outbreaks like in Sierra Leone or Liberia.

The Rewards

One of the biggest rewards, while also being the biggest challenge, is the travel. You get to travel to places your friends and family have never heard of, and you literally get to see the world. It is perfect for anyone who loves to travel. Another reward is paid housing. You stay in the nicest housing in the country, and you don’t have to worry about rent or a mortgage.

For families, paid schooling (K-12) is a nice benefit. Your children are able to attend the finest international schools in that particular country. You can also send them to the best boarding schools abroad if you choose.

CME is an important part of being a professional. Not only is it needed to keep your certification/licensure, but it is also essential to stay up-to-date. Every year, you get to attend a CME conference for which lodging, registration and travel are all paid.

This career provides opportunities for unique experiences during downtime. Whether it’s viewing sunsets on pristine beaches, hiking through the mountains, seeing the wonders of the world or jet skiing in the ocean you will have tons of stories to tell around the dinner table during holidays.

The most satisfying reward is service. You get to be a foreign diplomat and serve your country like no one else. You become the face of America to the medical community in different countries. Foreign diplomacy gets all the headlines, but everyday across the globe my colleagues and I engage in medical diplomacy—whether it’s sponsoring or giving a lecture on a medically relevant topic or hosting a blood drive for the local community.

Who Can Apply?

Almost anyone can apply for the Foreign Service. You just have to meet a few requirements. You must be United States citizens and at least 20 years old-however, you must be at least 21 years of age to be appointed. Also, by law, all applicants must be appointed to the Foreign Service prior to the month in which they reach age 60. You must be available for worldwide service and be willing to go anywhere. You have to be able to obtain a Top Secret Clearance. Finally, you must be able to obtain an appropriate medical clearance for Foreign Service work.

There are professional requirements as well. You must have a Bachelor’s degree in medical technology or clinical laboratory science. You must have completed a National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) accredited medical technology/MLS/CLS program. You must have passed a national certification examination. You must have current certification or licensure as a Medical Laboratory Scientist or Medical Technologist. Finally, you need at least four years of laboratory experience as a generalist in a clinical laboratory after certification.

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About Author

James R. Adams, MSHS, MLS(ASCP)

James R Adams, MSHS, MLS(ASCP), is a regional medical laboratory scientist at the U.S. Department of State.

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